An international focus at Friends Select School in Philadelphia

Friends Select School senior Bekim Daku (foreground) of Albania is part of Friends Select's multinational population. The school has made a concerted push in recent years to attract students from other countries. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Friends Select School senior Bekim Daku (foreground) of Albania is part of Friends Select's multinational population. The school has made a concerted push in recent years to attract students from other countries. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 23, 2012

Brian Kors is midway through a double history period at Center City's Friends Select School, writing vocabulary words on the whiteboard as afternoon sun streams through the back window.

"Infrastructure," he says, turning toward a room full of 16- and 17-year-olds. "That's a good SAT word. Can anyone define it for us?"

A girl near the front of the room raises her hand hesitantly.

"Can I do it in Chinese?" she asks. The class bursts into laughter.

At Friends Select, though, there's a good chance at least half the class would understand her if she did. The tiny Quaker school on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway has a robust international population - about 5 percent of students come from overseas - and officials there have been making a concerted effort to expose students to international cultures for some time.

A decade ago, school officials began implementing a long-term plan to put an increased focus on international studies, beginning an ESL program and starting Mandarin classes in the World Languages department. The students followed soon after - from Korea and China, Germany, Brazil, and even Afghanistan. This year, the school has had a large influx of Chinese students; two years ago, Koreans dominated the school's international population. The current pool of applications includes several from Albania.

"We have a buzz in the international setting," said Rose Hagan, head of school. "We've grown our own energy by virtue of our success."

Small Philadelphian details

Ask May Chen her favorite thing about Philadelphia, and she'll smile shyly.

"The people here are extremely friendly. I was shocked!" she said, laughing.

Chen is 15, a Shanghai native with pink-streaked hair who speaks quickly and enthusiastically in nearly unaccented English. It's her first year at Friends Select and her third in the United States; she spent two years at a boarding school in Connecticut before moving to Philadelphia. Like many fellow international students, she lives with a host family during the academic year.

Others, like Bekim Daku, a 17-year-old senior from Albania, live with parents or relatives who are already Philadelphia residents. A lucky six are staying at a downtown apartment building with professional live-in guardians.

Chen and other international students say that since arriving in the city, they've dealt with culture shock, but they speak of Philadelphia in almost universally glowing terms. The Italian Market and Old City are popular hot spots, although the food is "extremely different," Chen said. Many simply take pleasure in the little things: Students speak with fondness of minute Philadelphian details like streets named for trees.

Many of the international students heard about the school online and interviewed for coveted spots in the upper school via Skype. Administrators say they hold international students to the same academic standards as their American counterparts, and all those from abroad must have some level of fluency in English before arriving in Philadelphia. Administrators once had to cut a Skype interview short, said Sherry Claypool, director of upper school admissions, when a prospective student appeared on screen with a translator.

When they arrive, students are placed in ESL classes on top of their normal course load, learning not only to converse in English but also to analyze literature, write essays, and navigate cultural norms.

"In ESL 1, we're reading pieces of literature that would be included in a ninth-grade English class," said Anita Voluntad-DePace, who's been teaching ESL courses at Friends Select for 10 years. "We just might work through them a little slower."

In a typical ESL class, Voluntad-DePace might assign students anything from editing one another's essays - last week, they were working on pieces inspired by a recent visit to Trenton's Grounds for Sculpture - to acting out a scene from Macbeth. Voluntad-DePace also works closely with other teachers to tailor lessons for native speakers and ESL students.

Kors, who teaches 11th- and 12th-grade history, says challenges for international students go beyond simple comprehension in the classroom.

"A lot of it is about making them feel at home here," he said. "It's very easy for international students to just hang out with each other. You want to draw students into mixed circles."

For some students, the classroom experience is markedly different from what they're used to at home.

"For international students, everything is kind of surprising," said Husseinali Akrami, an 18-year-old senior from Afghanistan. "At first, I was surprised that boys and girls sat in the same room."

Growing global middle class

Education experts say increased international enrollment at places like Friends Select is part of a growing trend among American private schools.

"The push is coming from China and India and Southeast Asia, and it's coming because there are people there who now have the means, the economic resources, to send their kids to these schools, because of the growing middle classes in those countries," said Irene McHenry, executive director of the Friends Council on Education, a Philadelphia organization that represents 82 Quaker schools around the country. "I think it's amazing that they look to the U.S. as having the best education system."

At Friends Select, administrators say many international students attend high school in the United States to increase their chances of getting into college here. And the presence of international students in the classroom, they say, has encouraged American students to consider majors in international studies after high school.

"It's clear in all trends in education - this is a global world," Hagan said. "No matter what business you look in, it's all about the international."

School officials say that having international students enriches all students' experience at Friends Select.

"Socially, at first, it's hard. They're high school students. They're terrified to make mistakes," Voluntad-DePace said. "But the kids are really welcoming. They embrace the international students here. It's not unusual to hear a kid in the hallway teaching his friends how to say something in Mandarin."

But whether international or American, Kors says, his students can always find themselves on common ground.

"They're all teenagers," he said, laughing. "ESL is not a category that takes them away from being teens."

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 215-854-2771,, or follow @aubreyjwhelan on Twitter.

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