The Growing Diversity of VSB’s International Education

“In China only one way: you should study very hard hard hard—and maybe you can get job only one way.”

Amy, a Grade 10 international student from China, explains how she expects her high-school experience back in Beijing to differ from the one she’s about to embark on. “But in Canada I think I can find a lot of ways. It’s very fun.”

The whole world has descended on Killarney Secondary today, albeit in adolescent ESL form. It’s orientation day for the Vancouver school board’s International Education program, which keeps breaking records with its enrollment. This year, 475 new international students from 30 countries will study in Vancouver’s high schools (in addition to the 1,086 who are either returning or are in elementary school). That’s a jump of nearly 25 percent from two years ago. 

Amy, whose Chinese name is Zhang Ziwei, is seated at a cafeteria table at Killarney (in southeast Vancouver) with a couple hundred other secondary international students finishing their pizza (which included stalwart varieties like pepperoni and Hawaiian, as well as the apropos “Great Canadian” pizza). Lunch is a reward for enduring three rounds of English proficiency tests this morning. Crumpled juice boxes are strewn across the tables, straws jutting out. The room is filled with the hum of chatter in pretty much every language except English.

The girl next to Amy studied at an American School in Shanghai. She is 16, and her English skills are strong. Ditto her confidence. “I travel a lot, and I think Vancouver is kind of the best place for high school,” she says, gesturing with fingernails painted Kelly green. “I can behold the mountainside and the ocean views at the same time where I live.”

“Vancouver has got a very good reputation as a safe city in a good country that values education and has invested in its public schools. That’s the key,” says Barbara Onstad, the manager of VSB’s International Education. “Our governments over the past many years have invested a lot into public education.” Vancouver’s International Education program started in the early ’80s with a few overseas kids dropped into a classroom here and there. By the mid ’90s, likely stoked by Hong Kong’s handover to China, the program had grown to about 250 students. Today, it stands at 1,135. (The largest cohort by far is China, with 760 students.) The number of international students worldwide is expected to double by 2025.

As the number of students rises, so do the schools offering international education programs. “In that sense the whole pie is getting bigger, but it’s being sliced many more ways,” says Onstad. At the moment, B.C. is leading Canada in international K-12 student enrollment, but competition from the United States and Australia is stiff. “The U.S. just kind of has the image of Disneyland for a lot of overseas students,” Onstad says. Australia and New Zealand have coordinated international marketing and visa offices in key countries. For its part, the VSB works with trade commissioners in overseas embassies and with study abroad agents to get the word out. Word of mouth and the internet help take care of the rest.

Skyrocketing demand for international student placements has come at a time when Vancouver’s classrooms are thinning out. “Our enrollment numbers over the last decade have slowly been declining. Affordability in Vancouver is difficult for many parents—the cost of living and housing,” says VSB superintendent Steve Cardwell. Over the past four years, K-12 local enrollment has shrunk by just over 1,600 students across the VSB’s 110 schools, but because provincial educational grants are awarded per head—the lion’s share of revenue comes from provincial educational grants—operating costs don’t shrink proportional to the student body. “We’ve been trying to increase our international numbers to just fill the empty spaces that we’ve got—and maintain the same level of services that we’ve had before,” says Cardwell.

At $13,000 tuition fee per international student, the program brings in $14.3 million annually. (The school district’s overall budget is around $550 million.) That money helps the bottom line “in terms of helping with labour and other costs, but it’s also helping toward other resources that the school district might not otherwise have,” explains Cardwell. “It’s probably the greatest source for providing additional resources to the school district.”

It’s after lunch, and the students have been parsed into classrooms of 20 or so to be walked through medical and custodian forms, after which they go through the International Student Handbook. The English speakers—a mixed group of Danish, Austrian, Brazilian, German, and French kids—are in Room B213, a classroom in retro mint green and vanilla. A trail of Mandarin can be heard from next door.

“A lot of them are a little wide-eyed, that deer-in-the-headlights thing,” Andy Kefalas, head of the ESL program at Point Grey Secondary says in an aside. He and his colleague, Carolyn Hansen, Point Grey’s international student adviser, are guiding the students through the paperwork. The custodian form is especially hairy—starting with the word “custodian.” “It’s not a janitor, okay?” Kefalas clarifies. Finally, they get to the handbook, which covers High School 101: this is what an A is; these are the types of clubs and extracurricular activities you can join; this is how, if you play hooky, you will get caught. And, this is the underlying principle to being a student here, which Kefalas spells out: “You have the freedom to succeed and the freedom to fail on your own. Both are valuable learning tools.”

The orientation wraps up and the kids stand and hoist their backpacks over their shoulders in a universal gesture of studenthood. “Okay, bye-bye. Have a good year,” he calls after them. “Best of luck, eh!” Hansen chimes in. One by one the kids walk out the door. There goes Brazil, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Italy. Some wise Alec has stuck a bumper sticker above the door frame that reads, in chalkboard font, “Will Work for World Peace.”