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Portledge School Welcomes Students From Asia

Whether you believe in tougher standards or overhauling curriculums, the big concern in education circles in a rapidly changing world where China is ascending: will American students be prepared for competition in the global economy? The issue is central to the movement for curriculum reform. drives.


At Portledge School in Locust Valley, administrators have long embraced the new reality with international classrooms via skype, foreign language lessons and school trips abroad. But now, as part of a campus-wide mandate on building skills for the 21st Century, Portledge takes a bold next step by enrolling 18 students from Asia for the 2013-14 school year.


“There is no technological substitute for personal contact, and although our students are well versed in - and employ - technology for maximum connectivity, we feel that to really have an international outlook, the school environment needs to reflect that,”  says Simon Owen-Williams, Head of School. 


During the past year, the global initiative at Portledge has brought in students from Europe and Asia, as well as educators from Egypt and China interested in emulating the Portledge model, which emphasizes mental agility, critical thinking, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving.


The school’s theme for its 2013-2014 year is “Conversations.”  So what will these campus conversations look like, and will they be in English or Mandarin? Kim Baratoff, ESL instructor and admissions associate for international students, says that while the program is part of a national trend among independent schools to admit foreign children;

Portledge, unlike some otherschools, is purposefully selective and requires a greater degree of English fluency from its Chinese applicants, whose goal is to assimilate fully. 


“They actually seek out schools that don’t have too many other Chinese students,” says Baratoff, “and at Portledge they are expected  to engage with their classmates in group problem-solving in the classroom.“ 


The biggest challenge for the foreign students is the first few months at school when they are separated  from their parents, sometimes for the first time, living in host households and still improving their English language skills. Baratoff, who initially acts as surrogate mother, best friend and language teacher, reports that beyond this initial adjustment period, the Chinese teens, who have excellent study habits, have thrived in the Portledge environment. The primary difference for them lies in the small class sizes,  extra-curricular activities, and a curriculum tailored to the individual.


Owen-Williams believes in in an educational philosophy that puts students front and center and engages them to think for themselves and communicate effectively. Portledge’s educational approach contrasts with the Chinese educational system,in which the teacher is authoritarian, the study hours long and the class sizes can number 50 students. Add to that China’s one-child policy and it becomes understandable why Chinese families are willing to make the emotional and financial sacrifices to get their children to Portledge.


Chinese teens are not much different from their American counterparts: they have dealt with bullying, they are into technology, and they want to get into a good college and make their parents proud.  “A huge motivator is getting into an Ivy League school,” reports Baratoff. Chinese students possess a strong work ethic which they have channeled into extra-curricular and community service projects, like tutoring elementary schoolers in Mandarin.  And they make good friends.  One of the American students at Portledge spent part of last summer in China with his classmate’s family. Global sleep-overs?  Maybe. One outcome can be seen:  the world is in the process of changing for a new generation of globalized citizens at Portledge School.