ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Across the country, record numbers of Chinese students are enrolling in American colleges and universities. And that trend is also spreading to the younger set.

As Andrea Hsu reports, that has created big opportunities for some high schools, including one tucked away in southeast Michigan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Lake Shore High School is pretty typical as high schools go. Among its 1,200 students, you've got your quiet kids, your jocks, your artsy crowd, and then there are the kids from China. Emma Xie and Shirley Xiao have just come from Earth Science class.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

HSU: The girls are part of a group of more than 70 students from a private boarding school in Beijing, the Haidian Foreign-Language Experimental School. They are here in the predominantly white community of St. Claire Shores, as part of a 21-year deal struck between their school and the Lake Shore Public School District.

RICH BOWERS: I love having them here.

HSU: That's principal Rich Bowers. His American students, he says, rarely get outside the Shores, even to the other side of Michigan.

BOWERS: So, to bring in another culture with different ideas, it's been a great experience.

HSU: This all started seven years ago when Lake Shore schools started teaching Mandarin. Their Mandarin teacher knew the principal of the Chinese school and they set up a cultural exchange. Lake Shore students went to China for two weeks, the Chinese students came to Michigan. But two weeks were not enough for the Chinese - they wanted to come for a whole school year. And the student's parents, members of China's wealthy elite, were willing to pay $8,400 in tuition - the amount equivalent to the state's per-pupil funding - and another 4,000-some to cover housing, busing, school lunches, field trips, and so on.

CHRISTOPHER LORIA: Total or just around $13,000.

HSU: Lake Shore Schools Superintendent Christopher Loria says the tuition and fees more than cover the costs of them being here.

LORIA: I don't spend one penny of state or federal or any public money on the China program.

HSU: And yet.

LORIA: There's always objections.

HSU: It's not surprising. St. Clair Shores sits just north of Detroit in Macomb County. Many livelihoods here were built on manufacturing, much of it auto related. Today, the county has 40,000 fewer jobs than it had just a decade ago. Loria has heard people's concerns.

LORIA: We're giving them our jobs. Why are we doing this? You know, China is building in the world market economically, so why are we doing it? Because our kids will be in that world market and the better understanding we have of not just China, but everything, the better off they'll be.

HSU: Case in point, Marcus Barnett, a junior who's taken four years of Mandarin and has a fondness for speaking it whenever the occasion arises.

MARCUS BARNETT: I say buhao a lot, not good. Any bad situation is like buhao, buhao, buhao.

HSU: He used those words and more on two trips to Beijing. Here in Michigan, he's played brother to several Chinese boys who have spent time in his home. Yet even he says the transition to having lots of Chinese students at Lake Shore all the time was pretty awkward.

BARNETT: People who didn't know the program kind of just said, OK, there's random Chinese kids in my class now.

HSU: At the beginning, he says, the Chinese kids grouped up and the American kids grouped up. Over time, some have integrated. Academically, the Chinese students do pretty well. Most have studied English since kindergarten. All want to go to college in the West.

SHIRLEY YAN: If I can go to the Rhode Island School of Design, it would be good.

HSU: For now though, Shirley Yan is focusing on "Frankenstein," which she's reading in 11th grade English.

YAN: It uses a lot of imagination, so it's awesome.

HSU: For the Chinese kids, there's far less pressure here than at home. Hunter Wang remembers back in Beijing, a foreign teacher once asked him: When do you go climb trees?

HUNTER WANG: We don't have enough time to climb trees or even play other things. And here, you can enjoy the freedom.

(LAUGHTER)

HSU: But even in Michigan, their freedom is limited. At the end of the day, they board a yellow school bus and head home to an old elementary school the district transformed into a dorm.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

HSU: Here, their Chinese teacher oversees another four hours of studying. They do get a break to enjoy a Chinese dinner, prepared by the chef they brought with them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HSU: Tonight, it's stewed chicken wings, red braised pork, rice and soup.

In all, Lake Shore School spent $640,000 upgrading the school building. Its money that Superintendent Christopher Loria is confident they'll recoup in just four years. With another 88 tuition-paying students arriving from China this fall, it does appear possible. Loria is well aware that all around the state, school districts are struggling.

LORIA: China has certainly helped us struggle less.

HSU: And in these times of economic uncertainty, he believes that's a good thing.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Hsu.

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