The World Comes to Ross School

Boarding program draws from China, South Korea, Russia, Thailand, Japan
Ross School boarding students appeared in an online video promoting the institution’s home-style accommodations.

    Back in the old days of the Ross School, when the school enrolled only a handful of girls, students routinely toured the world in grand style, staying at the Ritz in Paris and the Hotel Seiyo Ginza in Tokyo. 

    But rather than Ross students traveling the globe, the world is increasingly coming to them.

    Since establishing itself as a boarding school in 2008, when Ross first enrolled 11 boarding students, the boarding program has rapidly expanded. Of the approximately 500 students enrolled at the school this year, around 40 percent were boarding students, a number that school officials say will hold steady come September.

    The school’s global reach is most evident when flipping through its family directory, which Ross publishes annually. Perusing through the spiral bound notebook, one is as likely to come upon an address in China or South Korea as one in Sagaponack or Wainscott.

    According to the directory, there are 90 students whose families live in East Hampton and 82 whose families live in China. Boarding students from South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam number 30, or about the population of day students from Amagansett and Montauk combined. Though students from Asian countries comprise significantly more than half of the boarding student population, students from Germany, Brazil, Russia, and nearly 20 other countries, are also represented.

    The trend of enrolling increasing numbers of international students is hardly unique to the Ross School. All across the country, it is a direction that a number of boarding schools are similarly headed in — a strategic move that provides financial stability, particularly during times of economic uncertainty.

    “The boarding program probably started the day the school started,” Donald Smith, the director of enrollment management and external affairs at Ross, said during a recent conversation. 

    Mr. Smith, who arrived at the Ross School a little more than a year ago, previously worked at the Blue Ridge School in Virginia and the Cate School in California, among a handful of others. “Of every boarding school I’ve worked at, there’s never been one more mission-appropriate than Ross,” he said. “How could we not eventually grow into a boarding program?”

    Since its earliest days, the Ross curriculum, which runs from pre-nursery to 12th grade, has emphasized the creation of global citizens by exposing its students to a wide array of cultures, languages, and philosophies. Ross students take part in annual trips abroad during midwinter term, or M-term. For three weeks this past March, students ventured to Thailand, Italy, Ethiopia, Brazil, and Indonesia, among other exotic destinations, while some spent their M-terms involved in projects nearer to home.

    “It’s not just a catch phrase,” said Mr. Smith, referring to the school’s global mission. “These kids are as likely to work in London or Cairo as they are in New York or Topeka.”

    Founded in 1991, the Ross School was started by Courtney Sale Ross in memory of Steven J. Ross, her late husband and former head of Time Warner. The school got its start as a sort of home-school experiment for the couple’s only daughter, Nicole. In the more than 20 years since, it has grown to include two campuses, the Lower School in Bridgehampton, once the Hampton Day School, and the Upper School in East Hampton.

    Tasked with overseeing both admissions and marketing, Mr. Smith conceded that part of his responsibility is ensuring the school assumes more sound financial footing. Rather than relying on Mrs. Ross, the school’s primary benefactor, for its stability, the aim of the school going forward is to create an endowment to ensure its growth and expansion in the years to come.

    “It has added students in our school that wouldn’t be here otherwise. Without boarders, we would be a school of 400, and now we have 530,” said Mr. Smith. He said that while the school does not necessarily make money from its boarding student population, their families, most of whom are quite wealthy, often give annual donations.

    Nevertheless, the boarding program helps buttress the Ross School’s bottom line. While the school grants $3 million each year in need-based financial aid, international boarding students generally pay full freight. For the 2013-14 academic year, day students in grades 9 to 12 will pay $36,200 in annual tuition. Boarding students in 7th through 12th grades will pay $54,200 by comparison — with an additional $8,000 in other fees.

    Mr. Smith said that a host of factors have influenced the increasing numbers of international boarding students — everything from economic uncertainty to exchange rates. In recent years, particularly as visa restrictions have eased, the numbers of Chinese students have swelled. 

    Peter Upham, the executive director of the Association of Boarding Schools, which represents 285 schools in the United States and Canada, and whose membership includes the Ross School, sees a similar trend occurring across the country.
    Since 2005, Mr. Upham has seen the proportion of international boarding students grow from 25 to 30 percent among his organization’s member schools, which range in size from 25 to 1,000 students. And of the 30 percent, half are natives of either China or South Korea.

    “Schools are definitely becoming more international, although they’ve been more international than most folks would imagine for quite some time,” said Mr. Upham. He has witnessed what he described as a “huge surge in demand for American-style education,” particularly during a time when slots in U.S. colleges have grown increasingly competitive.

    Though enrolling foreign-born students was a direction that many boarding schools were already pursuing, he believes the recent economic collapse accelerated it. 

    “At about the same time the international demand was surging, our economy was going through our troubles, with demand from traditional domestic markets softening,” said Mr. Upham, who said that domestic demand has started bouncing back in certain regions of the country.

    For many schools, a decline in the domestic population has proven a very real worry. “There are schools where filling beds and meeting enrollment is a very real pressure,” said Mr. Upham, who explained that some schools struggle with how many international students to admit, with many searching to perfect the balance between day and boarding students. “If the demand is coming from Mexico or Spain and not from Rochester or Minneapolis, they’re going to go where the students are.”

    But whether at Ross or elsewhere, the influx of international students is not without its challenges. While all students at Ross must take two foreign languages (with Mandarin required across all grades), some of its foreign-born population struggles with English. Toward that end, later this summer, approximately 50 students will enroll in a six-week program specifically targeted toward improving their English skills.

    According to Carey London, Ross’s communications coordinator, for students enrolled at the Upper School campus on Goodfriend Drive who already speak Mandarin, once they reach either an intermediate or advanced level of proficiency in English, they also take Spanish.

    Requests to speak with both Gregg Maloberti, the interim head of school, and Patti Silver, who chairs Ross’s board of overseers and serves on its board of trustees, were both denied. 

    Lacking dormitories, boarding students at Ross live in nearby houses, many scattered throughout Northwest Woods, where faculty members work as live-in supervisors, or house parents. Each house accommodates between 4 and 12 students, with many relying on local cab companies to transport them, whether they are meeting up for coffee at Starbucks, shopping excursions, or fancy dinners in town. This fall, Mr. Smith will run one of the houses.

    In terms of its international enrollment, Mr. Smith sees Ross holding steady, though he said the campus still has room to expand, albeit ever so slightly. “We simply don’t have the room to change a lot,” he said. “But I can see it getting more diverse as we enter other markets.”