LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Five students from Beijing, China, just spent three weeks of winter vacation taking classes at the Out-of-Door Academy upper school in Lakewood Ranch to get a taste of attending private school in America.
The partnership between Out-of-Door Academy and the Beijing No. 4 High School started last year, when the China school launched its international program. The program encourages students who qualify academically and plan to pursue higher education in the United States to travel abroad during school break, which begins before Spring Festival and Chinese New Year.
Of the 83 students in the program at Beijing No. 4 High School, 63 are visiting nine partner schools across the country.
The students visiting Out-of-Door Academy have been to the United States before, but this is the first time each had been to Florida. Cheyanne Zhang, Frank Liao, Jeffery Qiu, Tina Shibano and Liz Zhuo -- all sophomores at Beijing No. 4 High School -- head home Wednesday.
During their first week, the visiting students gave a presentation to their classmates about their school in China, the city of Beijing and the Chinese government's family planning policies.
Students in China attend six years of primary school,
three years of middle school and three years of high school. The students said the pressure to excel in school and achieve the highest ranks possible in education begins early.
"Grades are a common cultural value," Zhuo said.
Liao said this is due, in part, to China's overpopulation.
"Grades are what make you distinct," Liao said. "It is seen as a fair way to determine where you end up going in life."
Middle school students take a high school entrance exam, which determines where and if they may apply to attend high school.
They also take the Gao Kao, similar to the SAT, and a college entrance exam they may take once per year.
Students who do not pass the high school entrance exam have few options. They can repeat their last year of middle school, attend military academy and join the army.
Qiu said some students take the latter option regardless of their scores in hopes military service will lead to a coveted job in the Chinese government.
"A lot of students want to get into the military," Qiu said. "But some people who have important parents, or parents who work in the government, or people who are very good athletes can still get into high school if they don't do so well on the exam."
Qiu said one of the biggest differences between students in China and the United States is the general attitude toward learning.
Qiu said the new international campus at school encourages open discussion more than lectures, but testing is still high stakes.
Teacher John McVay, originally from Mississippi and an educator in China the past 12 years, said he enjoys the challenge of teaching highly motivated students.
"They are proactive rather than reactive," McVay said.
Starting in elementary school, McVay said students he has worked with take 10 hours of additional course work in English classes, science programs, music studies and other educational programs.
"A family's whole effort is for one child to succeed, and their education means so much," McVay said. "Students in America feel pressure to succeed in school, too, but it is nothing compared to China. Traditional schools teach toward exams and must follow a regime that is narrow."
The five visiting students did well on their entrance exams. The Beijing No. 4 High School is considered prestigious.
"Our school has some of the best Gao Kao scores," Zhuo said.
Last year, the school added a program targeting Western universities because an increasing number of students want to pursue higher education abroad. The United States, Canada and Australia are popular choices.
The program features advanced placement courses modeled after AP courses in the United States. McVay said Western teachers are recruited to teach those courses.
Many of McVay's students, including those visiting Out-of-Door Academy, enrolled in the international campus with hopes of attending Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford universities.
"The ranking of a school is important in China," McVay said. "If students don't make it into one of these schools, sometimes they don't ever go back to China."
Students in China take college entrance exams in June. They must elect to submit their scores to desired universities before they find out how they did.
"It's a bit like gambling," McVay said. "They might miss out on going to a higher-ranking school if they play it safe. But if they submit their scores to their first-choice schools and do not do as well as they thought, they most likely won't get accepted."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081