What International Parents Should Look for in U.S. High Schools

Second time’s the charm for Nane Hakobyan from Yerevan, Armenia. Last year, the coronavirus pandemic cut her senior year short at Baltic High School in South Dakota, where she attended on a J-1 exchange visitor visa. Determined to graduate from an American high school, she returned to the U.S. in late September 2020 to begin her senior year a second time, this time on an F-1 student visa at Newcomb Central School in New York.

“I chose Newcomb because I knew they are very friendly to international students,” Hakobyan says.

Parents considering sending their child abroad to attend an American high school should be aware of the different paths available.

International students who want to study at U.S. high schools for more than a year would need to apply for an F-1 visa. High schools approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to accept F-1 students can receive them directly or through an approved agency. Students on an F-1 visa can study at public and private high schools, but can only do one year max at a public school, experts say, and they must pay tuition.

In contrast, international students participating in a one-year cultural exchange program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State would need a J-1 visa. These students must go through a sponsoring organization, and the agency must find a public or private high school to accept the students.

[READ: What to Know About International Student Exchange Programs in the U.S.]

“Even with a worldwide pandemic, we have found that interest has not wavered much on the J-1 high school program,” says Matt Smith, executive vice president for international exchange programs at CIEE, a nonprofit study abroad and intercultural exchange organization. “We are especially seeing a high level of interest from parents in Europe and Latin America.”

Clark “Skip” Hults, who served as superintendent for 13 years at Newcomb Central School District, which is an F-1 program, says while the district did not have as much interest as in previous years, “we still have a number of applicants.” The district has 13 international students for the 2020-2021 school year. Hults is currently serving as deputy superintendent to help mentor the district’s new superintendent.

The majority of international secondary students in the U.S. hold an F-1 visa, per a recent report from the Institute of International Education and the AIFS Foundation. The report found that a total of 69,518 international students were enrolled in U.S. high schools in fall 2019, a 6% decline from the prior fall.

For international parents planning to send their students to a public U.S. high school, here are some things to look for to find the best fit:

— Strong international program

— College prep courses

— Location, size and housing options

Strong International Program

When parents are evaluating American high schools, it’s important to look for one that has a vetted international program and is set up to regularly receive international students, experts say.

Chris Page, executive director of the not-for-profit Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, says, “Parents should look for the CSIET seal of approval when considering sending their children to the U.S. CSIET sets standards for and certifies international student exchange programs at the secondary level.”

Page says F-1 high school students often have host families and notes that CSIET’s standards of excellence include criminal background checks on host families and local coordinators; required English language testing for students; student interviews and matching with host families; interviews with host families in the home; student and host family orientation; and monthly contact between local coordinators and students.

“I do believe when considering an international program nothing is more important than experience and history. Find a program and school with a history of success,” says Hults, who notes that Newcomb, a public school, is certified by CSIET. He says over the past 13 years, the school has welcomed 140 international students.

Parents going through the process on their own can search for U.S. high schools by school name and location through the Department of Homeland Security’s website, or they can look for study abroad organizations by country of origin and visa type through CSIET.

College Prep Courses

Experts advise parents of prospective international students who plan to eventually attend a U.S. university to look for high schools that focus on the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — and offer Advanced Placement courses, English as a second language programs and more to prep students for college.

[Read: How U.S. High School Can Prepare International Students for College.]

“American schools have a dizzying array of choices in subjects, sports, arts and extracurricular activities,” says Carla Kearns, a spokesperson for Educatius Group, an organization with offices in 20 countries dedicated to providing high school programs abroad for international students, including enrollment at U.S. public high schools and host family placements. Kearns says the company works with 65 U.S. public high school districts and places students from more than 50 countries.

“For STEM in particular, I recommend the student research what options and facilities the school has. Award-winning robotics teams, on-campus 3D printers or partnerships with local colleges are all features of a school that can point to a very engaging STEM program,” Kearns says.

Here are just a few examples of public schools that accept international students and have such offerings:

Higley Unified School District in Arizona offers a variety of AP and honors courses, STEM courses, and career and technical education, and the district is partnered with three universities in the state.

Birmingham Community Charter High School in California has a medical lab and a STEM lab.

Orono High School in Maine offers AP classes and intensive ESL courses, and all international graduates of the school receive automatic conditional acceptance to the neighboring University of Maine.

Nauset Regional High School in Massachusetts has an ESL program and a STEM program.

Hults says parents should investigate the various programs offered by U.S. high schools. For example, Newcomb offers dual enrollment classes to bring college courses into high school.

“Our high school teachers are actually approved as adjunct professors of North Country Community College, Paul Smith’s College or State University of Potsdam,” Hults says. “They then combine the college and high school curriculum so it meets the requirements of both. This way we can give both college and high school credit.”

Location, Size and Housing Options

In addition to academic offerings, location is another factor for international parents to weigh about U.S. high schools. They can choose to send their children to high schools near the beach or a big city, for example, and when selecting a location, should find out about homestay and accommodation options, experts say.

[See: Top 100 Public High Schools Map.]

“Size of the school is important too. Generally a larger school, for example 1,000-plus students, will have more facilities, clubs and sports teams, but a smaller school might provide more individual attention that an international student really needs, especially if they are a bit shy,” Kearns says.

Hakobyan says she likes that Newcomb is a small school in a rural community. The school is located in the Adirondack Mountains, about five hours by car from New York City.

“I know that many international students would prefer bigger schools, but from my last year’s experience I realized that a small community and school are so much better. It gives you more opportunities and chance to get to know American culture,” Hakobyan says.

Hults says housing is essential and students coming from abroad are looking for “more than a place to get their meals and sleep.” His district usually has a bigger house with six or more international students as well as traditional homes with just one or two students along with a host parent.

“The number of students is less important than finding a home that will truly love and care for students like their own. Personally, my wife and I have welcomed over 30 students just like our own kids,” Hults says.

Hakobyan is among the students staying with the Hults family. She will be graduating in June and has already applied to and been accepted to U.S. universities. She says her public high school experience in the U.S. helped her a lot when applying to colleges and that she plans to attend Ithaca College in New York.

“I see many parents being afraid to let their kids become exchange students, but I think everyone needs at least a year of that experience,” Hakobyan says. “Believe me, good or bad, that year is going to be unforgettable.”

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What International Parents Should Look for in U.S. High Schools originally appeared on usnews.com

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