Lake Shore High School in St. Clair Shores, Mich., is pretty typical as American high schools go. Walking the halls, you find the quiet kids, the jocks and the artsy crowd.
But a visitor will also see what sets Lake Shore apart: The school's large number of exchange students from China. This year, more than 70 Chinese students are enrolled at Lake Shore, which has a total student population of 1,200.
The students are from the Beijing Haidian Foreign Language Experimental School, an elite, private K-12 boarding school in China's capital.
Across the U.S., a record number of Chinese students are enrolling at American colleges and universities. Public institutions, in particular, are embracing these students, as many can afford to pay full out-of-state tuition.
Now, that trend is spreading to the younger set. And that's creating unprecedented opportunities for high schools like Lake Shore, tucked away in southeast Michigan.
Two Weeks Was Not Enough
The relationship between the schools dates back to 2005, when Lake Shore began teaching Mandarin. Lake Shore's Mandarin teacher knew the Chinese school's principal, and a cultural exchange was born: Lake Shore students went to China for two weeks, and the Chinese students came to Michigan.
Then, a few years ago, Haidian's principal had a new idea: He wanted to send his students for a longer stretch. And the students' parents, most of whom represent China's wealthy elite, were willing to pay for the experience.
Lake Shore settled on a cost of approximately $13,000 per year per student. The figure includes $8,411 in tuition — equivalent to the state's per pupil funding in the county — and some $4,000 to cover housing, busing, school lunches, field trips and other miscellaneous expenses.
Last year, the two schools signed a 21-year agreement pledging to work exclusively with one another.
Rich Bowers, principal of Lake Shore High, says he loves having the Chinese students at the school. His American students, he notes, rarely get outside the St. Clair Shores area — even to the other side of Michigan.
"So, to bring in another culture with different ideas," Bowers says, "it's been a great experience."
Lake Shore Schools Superintendent Christopher Loria, one of the creators of the exchange program, says the Chinese students' tuition and fees more than cover the costs of hosting them.
"I don't spend one penny of state or federal or any public money on the China program," Loria says.
Still, there have been objections, which is not too surprising, given the economic picture in southeast Michigan. St.Clair Shores sits in Macomb County, just north of Detroit. The livelihoods of many residents 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 about the U.S. giving China its jobs.
His response, he says, is always the same.
"China is building in the world market economically. So why are we doing it? Because our kids will be in that world market," Loria says. "And the better understanding we have, of not just China, but everything, the better off they'll be."
For Both Sets Of Students, A Transition
Case in point: Marcus Barnett, a junior who's taken four years of Mandarin at Lake Shore and hopes eventually to find a career that takes him to China.
Barnett has already been on two school trips to Beijing as part of the exchange with the Chinese school. Here in Michigan, he's hosted several Chinese students at his home, giving these only-children a chance to experience life with siblings.
Yet even Barnett says the transition to having so many full-time Chinese students at Lake Shore was awkward. People who weren't familiar with the program thought it was odd to have "random Chinese kids" in their classes, Barnett recalls. And, he says, the Chinese kids and American kids didn't mix much in the beginning.
Over time, some Chinese students have integrated. And they do pretty well academically, on the whole.
"At first, I was afraid that I would not be able to communicate well with them," says science teacher Greg Taylor. But he soon discovered that most of the Chinese students had studied English since kindergarten and have a solid command of the language.
Still, there have been misunderstandings, including one in Taylor's anatomy physiology class last term.
"I was talking about abdominal muscles, and I used the word 'waist,' " he recalls. "They were thinking of it as garbage, so I had to explain, 'No, no no — this is around where the belt is.' "
Engineering teacher Melissa Todaro has found that her Chinese students are very strong in math. But, she says, they are weaker in brainstorming, so she's had to spend class time on those skills.
That's good preparation for the Chinese students, who all aspire to go to college in the West.
A Different Lifestyle
"If I can go to the Rhode Island School of Design, it would be good," says Yan Hongshan, who goes by her English name, Shirley. She dreams of one day working in animation.
But for now, Yan is focusing on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for her 11th grade English class.
"It's quite amazing, because it uses a lot of imagination," Yan says. "So it's awesome."
For the Chinese students, there's far less pressure at Lake Shore than at home. Wang He, whose English name is Hunter, remembers a foreign teacher in Beijing once asking, "When do you go climb trees?"
But at home, Wang says, "we didn't have enough time to climb trees or even play other things. Here, you can enjoy the freedom."
But even in Michigan, that freedom is limited. At the end of each day, the students board a yellow school bus and head home to an old elementary school the district has transformed into a dormitory.
Lake Shore Schools spent $640,000 upgrading the building, which hadn't been renovated since the 1970s. The dorm now boasts new ceilings, new carpeting and a new sprinkler system. A hallway of classrooms has been transformed into sleeping quarters complete with bunk beds and dresser drawers, all modeled after dorms in China.
At the request of the Chinese school, Lake Shore also installed what's jokingly called the "beam of death" or "death ray": a motion sensor between the girls' and boys' rooms. If anyone crosses in the night, an alarm goes off.
Most likely, though, the students are too tired for mischief. After their regular school day ends, they study their Chinese curriculum for another four hours, supervised by teachers from Beijing. They're preparing for exams they'll have to pass to graduate from high school back in China.
The students do get an hour to enjoy a Chinese dinner, prepared by a chef who accompanied them to Lake Shore. And there are evening activities occasionally, like a badminton competition.
Loria is confident that within four years, the school district will recoup all the money spent on the renovated dorm. With 88 new students scheduled to arrive from Beijing this fall, his goal seems possible.
Going forward, the school plans to have no more than five Chinese students per class, while keeping class sizes at around 30. To do that, Lake Shore High School has had to add the equivalent of three full-time teachers.
Loria maintains that the Chinese students' tuition will cover the extra staffing costs.
He says he knows it's unusual to add teachers in an era of shrinking budgets. All around the state of Michigan, school districts are struggling.
But, he says, "China has certainly helped us to struggle less."
Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.