Conwell-Egan is one of three high schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia capitalizing on a trend that has been building for a decade: foreign students, largely Asian, enrolling in U.S. high schools with the goal of honing their English, acclimating to American culture, and scoring an advantage with admissions officers at top colleges here.
About 130 foreign students, mostly Chinese, attend Conwell-Egan, Archbishop Ryan High School in Northeast Philadelphia, and SS. John Neumann and Maria Goretti Catholic High School in South Philadelphia through an arrangement with a recruiting company. Instead of traditional yearlong placements with families - the archdiocese has 460 of those - these students are housed in dorms converted from rectories that were sitting empty.
Most sign up for more than a year. But that's a pricey proposition for the folks back home, who pay about $50,000 annually to the recruiting firm, Los Angeles-based Twinn Palms. A cut of that goes to the schools for tuition, ranging from $7,800 to $8,800, and other fees that the archdiocese declined to enumerate.
The steep cost is worth it, said Beijing native Yi Ning, 19, attired in the Conwell-Egan uniform of gray pants, blue blazer, striped tie. Like his peers, he has adopted an American name: Nathan. What brought him here, he said, is not complicated: "Our parents want us to have a better education."
Camden Catholic High School has 33 foreign students living in a former convent on campus. Rather than using just one recruiting agency, the Diocese of Camden works with a half-dozen to draw students from around the globe, including Nigeria, Vietnam, and Mexico, although the majority are from China, according to Diane Crowell, who runs the program.
A 2014 report by the Institute of International Education found that of 73,000 foreign students in U.S. high schools, 49,000 - three times as many as a decade ago - had F-1 long-term visas, allowing them to stay and earn high school diplomas. The vast majority of those were in private or parochial schools.
Pennsylvania is fifth in the nation and New Jersey ninth for attracting foreign nationals to secondary schools. Recruiters often tout the Philadelphia region for its wealth of colleges, and proximity to New York and Washington.
"If a college admission officer sees a student coming out of a trusted high school, they will feel they are much more able to succeed," said Eddie West, director of International Initiatives for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
On a recent afternoon at the small Conwell-Egan campus, as the last class of the day ended, Chinese students streamed back toward the dorms behind the school. The rectory conversions have been a joint venture of the archdiocese and the recruiting firm. This one is homey, its large community room accoutred with a pool table, ping-pong table, TV, musical instruments, and comfy chairs and sofas under red Chinese lanterns.
Xiaohong Lin, 19, nicknamed Betty, grabbed a Korean-brand Popsicle and reflected on the three years she has been Conwell-Egan. "I'm not homesick," she said. "I feel so comfortable here - except for the language."
Jason Budd, the archdiocese's deputy secretary for Catholic education, cited the benefits to both the foreign students and the homegrown. "To go to school with people from other countries," he said, "to exchange ideas and philosophies in real time, face to face - it's shown great opportunities for our students."
Budd also acknowledged that the influx of international students "helps us" coming out of an era of fiscal crisis, school closings, and mergers. Four years ago, Conwell-Egan was on Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's chopping block, until the 560-student school raised enough money to win a reprieve.
Jim Glowacki, executive vice president of Twinn Palms, said the 20-year-old recruiting firm works with 186 schools nationwide. Its three-year-old deal with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which was eager to start a global student program, "was a win-win for all of us," he said.
The surging recruitment of foreign students, however, has drawn critics who say it's sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to verify their transcripts and academic histories before they come to the U.S.
"It's very dangerous. You're relying on someone who has been paid by the family to come up with [a transcript] they think is going to be an advantage," said Dal Gough, director of International Services at the American Association of College Registrars and Admission Officers.
In the Philadelphia Catholic schools, students and administrators agree it's hard for new Chinese arrivals to excel at their courses while still working on the rudiments of communicating in English. Participation in after-school activities, clubs, or sports is spotty because of the cultural gaps. Residential students tend to stay in tight-knit social cliques.
"In class, we communicate with American students, but because we have a different culture, we can't hang out together," said first-year Conwell-Egan student Xiting "Doris" Zheng, 16. "If we go out on weekends, we actually go to Chinatown most of the time. Americans, I don't know what they do in their free time."
Then there is the knotty matter of studying spirituality when you've grown up in a nation that's largely not religious, or understanding U.S.-style civics when your homeland is not a democracy.
"God and government - two topics they've never been exposed to. We weren't ready for that," said Joe McFadden, principal of Archbishop Ryan, which created a special class called Foundation of Faith.
Bruce Robinson, president of Neumann-Goretti, said he understands their confusion. "If you ever sat back and looked at a Mass or religion, you'd think it was crazy if you didn't know what you know," Robinson said. "They're standing up and sitting down and shaking hands - we explain the symbolism."
Students are required to attend Mass just like other non-Catholic students.
"I never kneeled to parents," Zheng said. "Kneeling to Father is difficult for me. Sometimes I think, 'Why should I do that?' "
The students find American education itself radically different from the rigid routines and high stress of the Chinese school day, which can last from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Back home, they weren't allowed to use computers, iPads, or phones in class - only pencil and paper. Research had to be done in a library, not online.
"Doing homework is so different," Zheng said. "We never do projects in China - mostly practice and exercises."
Executives of the recruiting firm say they've had success placing the students in U.S. colleges.
Twinn Palms dorm director Daniel McMichen said that five seniors who graduated from Neumann-Goretti last year headed off to Miami University of Ohio, Pace University, the University of Miami, and the University of Colorado. At Conwell-Egan, 18-year-old senior Yan "Cynthia" Cao said she was applying to a list of schools that includes the University of Miami, and Michigan State, St. John's, Temple, and Purdue Universities.
Until the acceptance letters arrive, the students continue to adjust to the unique experience that is American high school - including cafeteria food.
"When I send photos of lunch to Mom," Zheng said, "she says, 'Oh, poor girl.' "