Dogwood Diploma, B.C. schools | BCBusiness

Dogwood Diploma, B.C. schools | BCBusiness
As enrolment in public schools declines, the fight is on to attract expatriate students like Paulina Mueller – and the big-buck tuitions parents will pay to have their children educated in B.C.

B.C. is peddling its Dogwood Diploma to foreign students in the name of entrepreneurialism.

The windows of West Vancouver Secondary School’s library overlook sun-dappled Burrard Inlet. A slogan on the wall reads, “Laughter Translates Into Any Language.” As if on cue, the students streaming the halls of this school in one of Vancouver’s toniest neighbourhoods laugh in many languages. It’s a mosaic of Germans, Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians and other nationalities.

When it comes to recruiting international students, West Vancouver School District sets the bar. Launched in 1982, its international student program is the oldest in the province and the district has an embarrassment of riches with which to lure wealthy foreigners: an affluent and relatively safe community, close proximity to mountains and sea, a diversity of excellent sporting facilities and extracurricular options, and some of the highest academic achievers in B.C.’s public school system.

These are the sorts of superlatives that appealed to Paulina Mueller when she spun the globe looking for the ideal spot to pursue her education. A native of Germany, the 17-year-old is precociously motivated, with her focus already fixed on med school and specializing in surgery. Academic prowess coupled with a mother willing to shell out whatever it takes to acquire the international education her daughter desires make Mueller a model client for the district.

“At first I was thinking of going to Chilliwack because it was cheaper, but when my mother asked me where I’d go if money was not an issue, I said West Vancouver,” Mueller tells me in note-perfect English as she sits at a library table, backpack bursting with textbooks and laptop.

These days entrepreneurialism is the mantra for public schools in B.C. The province and school districts are peddling B.C.’s high school certificate, known as the Dogwood Diploma, to overseas schools. They are also targeting foreign customers with online education and some districts have even opened for-profit companies – complete with CEOs – to pursue other market-based educational opportunities. But attracting international students to fill desks and boost budgets is the big-ticket entrepreneurial thrust.

As enrolment at K-12 public schools declines – close to 70,000 desks have been vacated in B.C. since 2001 – the fight is on for international students, not only in B.C. but across Canada. A 2009 study by Vancouver-based economic consultant Roslyn Kunin and Associates Inc. showed that B.C. far outpaces all other provinces, including Ontario, in K-12 international student recruitment. And bums in seats matter to district administrators; government funding is set mostly on a per-student basis, so when the domestic student body shrinks, non-nationals willing to pay between $12,000 and $14,000 a year in tuition can help fill the coffers. According to the Ministry of Education, 9,783 non-resident students were enrolled in public B.C. high schools and elementary schools in the 2011/12 school year. International students contributed $139 million in tuition fees to school district budgets that year, up almost $10 million from the previous year and well over double the $55 million grossed in 2001/02.

That’s why international program directors in some of the better-positioned districts rack up Air Miles travelling to education fairs in the top markets – Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan and Germany – as well as to emerging markets in rapidly developing economic powerhouses like Brazil. They seek out reputable overseas agents able to connect them to young scholars like Paulina Mueller, or they piggyback on junkets spearheaded by the provincial government and quasi-independent organizations such as the B.C. Council for International Education (BCIE), which gets roughly $1 million in annual government funding to sell B.C.’s K-12 curriculum and post-secondary institutions overseas.
Most observers believe the appetite for English language-based international education is set to grow. The June 2011 report “Bringing Education in Canada to the World, Bringing the World to Canada,” published by the Council of the Federation – an organization established by premiers in 2003 to promote interprovincial cooperation – claims the number of students worldwide studying outside their home countries will hit 7.2 million by 2025. The message to educators: stay sharp and aggressive if you want these students to choose the Dogwood Diploma over B.C.’s main competitors such as the U.S., U.K., New Zealand and Australia. The motivation for B.C. school districts to be players in this burgeoning marketplace of students is clear: each additional international student means more money to hire teachers and support staff and to purchase educational materials.

Reach for the Top

International student tuition, 2011/12 : Top 10 school districts
Coquitlam $14,909,703
Vancouver $14,139,911
Burnaby $11,629,577
Greater Victoria $9,196,129
Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows $8,801,231
Richmond $8,552,429
West Vancouver $8,513,793
Surrey $8,085,587
North Vancouver $7,160,305
source: B.C. ministry of education

Though the $139 million grossed in 2011/12 in international student tuition may pale in comparison to the roughly $5 billion annually shelled out by government to keep the lights on and teachers paid at public schools, international programs can have a profound impact on individual districts. That’s especially true for successful ones like Coquitlam, which tops the province in total international tuition earnings at $15 million, and West Vancouver, which leads in terms of the percentage international tuition adds to the district budget. In 2011/12 international students topped up West Van’s $52.6-million government-allocated operating grant by $8.5 million, amounting to a 16 per cent budget increase. And that contribution, says West Vancouver School District superintendent Chris Kennedy, significantly enhances the experience of all students in his district.

“In terms of numbers, the international program creates about 25 classroom teaching positions as well as other teaching and support staff jobs,” Kennedy says, adding that the program also supports library resources, English-language learning and a wider array of course options.

On a sunny September afternoon, I meet West Vancouver School District International Student Program principal Maureen Smiley and administrator Michael Frankowski around a massive oval conference table of dark red cherry wood at the district’s headquarters on 15th Street. With a lean retinue of three support staff, Smiley and Frankowski are essentially the one-two punch that makes the district’s international program one of the most envied in the province. West Van has enough classroom space for a total of 500 full-time-equivalent international students and the program routinely sells out well before the bell rings in September for the start of a new academic year. Eighty per cent of West Van’s international students come from six countries: China, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Mexico and Brazil.

Though West Van has decades of reputation to fall back on, students like Paulina Mueller, who is enrolled in the demanding International Baccalaureate program, don’t exactly stumble through the door. Before Frankowski and Smiley ever make first contact, these students and their families have already researched dozens of education opportunities in a handful of countries. They might have probed local transit options, the price of a season’s pass at Grouse Mountain and a school’s extracurricular offerings. By the time some of these students deplane at YVR, they may know more about West Vancouver than a born-and-raised North Shore kid does. But most importantly, their families have made a decision to dedicate a considerable sum of discretionary income to their kid’s education.

“It’s not just wealthy families. There are a lot of middle-class families that have decided to make their children’s education a priority,” Frankowski says. Mueller fits that demographic. In addition to the $14,200 in annual tuition, her mother pays $900 a month for a home stay, plus a $600 monthly allowance, for an annual cost that sits conservatively at around $26,000 – and that’s before the young Mueller even cracks her first medical textbook. “I’d cost my mom money even if I was studying at home,” Mueller says with a justifying shrug.


Frankowski and Smiley split the recruitment task, with each spending between 40 and 45 days a year jetting around the world, mostly for one-on-ones with agents rather than sitting in a booth at international education fairs. To Frankowski, the latter strategy is akin to throwing money in front of a fan and hoping it lands somewhere fruitful. “We have to be strategic [about] how and where we spend our resources. For us, meeting with reputable agents is far more effective,” he says. And that means diversifying the source countries for students in a manner that shelters a district from the vicissitudes of regional economic downturns or events like the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto that temporarily cooled Asian interest in Canada.

Frankowski says the relationship among different districts is more collegial than competitive, but admits that each district hustles hard to make appropriate connections and generate the kind of word-of-mouth positive reputation that’s gold when marketing a district’s attributes.

While West Van’s international program is maxed out, Richmond School District has room to grow. In the 2011/12 school year, Richmond experienced the highest-ever year-over-year growth in its international program, with tuition revenue jumping from $6 million to $8.5 million. “It’s a combination of things,” says Shaun Shepton, manager of Richmond’s international student program. “Our program was first established in 1998, so we have learned how to do things better. There’s a lot of competition out there and we’ve become better at marketing our program, letting people know we’re here and what we offer.”

Richmond’s international students come from 23 countries, with mainland China, Hong Kong and Brazil accounting for half of them. When Shepton sells Richmond, he touts its roster of new or newly renovated schools, a strong ESL program, high completion rates, good transit and easy access to recreation facilities, not to mention an entrenched Chinese community that helps ease the cultural transition for incoming Asian youngsters.

“I wouldn’t say it’s cutthroat, but there’s a lot of competition out there for clients,” Shepton says. “But at the same time the number of international students is set to grow.”

B.C. has been selling seats in its public K-12 classrooms for three decades; however other facets of educational entrepreneurialism have emerged in more recent times. In 1995 the Ministry of Education licensed its first offshore school, in China, staffed by B.C.-certified teachers delivering a B.C. curriculum to foreign students studying for the Dogwood Diploma. Today there are 34 such schools – 27 of them in China – and the B.C. government views these outposts as suppliers of feedstock to our post-secondary schools. However, these overseas schools have recently run into criticism, with the Vancouver Sun reporting in December 2012 that teachers at B.C.-certified overseas schools have complained of pressure to inflate grades. The Ministry of Education confirms that a review of international education programs in B.C. has been underway since June 2012.

A quiet but more profound shift occurred a decade ago with the passage of Bill 36 – the School Amendment Act – allowing districts to establish for-profit companies. The hope was that the districts could boost funds by selling education services such as teacher professional-development programs and ESL programs. Depending on who you talk to, such private enterprise initiatives either make sense in a world of shrinking domestic student populations and cash-strapped governments, or are a slow-moving disaster that is muddying the mandate of public education.

There’s no doubt B.C. has earned its chops in the fierce global arena for international students, but there’s a limit to the entrepreneurial abilities of school districts; they are, after all, bureaucracies run by educators, not MBAs. The number of school district for-profit companies has dwindled from a peak of 17 to less than eight, most of which are empty shells – companies only in name.

New Westminster School District pounced on the business opportunity back in 2002, with dreams of becoming a purveyor of B.C. education overseas and flooding the district bank account. “We saw lots of potential and there still is a lot of potential,” says Brent Atkinson, CEO of New West’s School District No. 40 Business Company and a former long-time school trustee. So far, the company’s main focus has been offshore education through its Canadian Secondary Wenzhou No. 22 School in China. The school graduated 75 students last year and generated a net income of $356,000, but it’s been a tough slog pushing the balance sheet into the black. While in the development phase, the company had to borrow more than $1 million from the district’s budget, which it wasn’t able to repay until recently. B.C. Auditor-General John Doyle turned his microscope on the enterprise in early 2012 and in a 10-page report expressed concerns about transparency and conflict of interest, given that Atkinson sat as both a school trustee voting on financial matters and CEO of the cash-strapped for-profit company.
Kamloops/Thompson School District, a leader in K-12 web-based learning, is another district that believes in the business model. The Interior district is currently the only one in the province licensed by the education ministry to offer accredited online courses in sciences, humanities, math, social studies and English to international students through its Global Education program, which is housed in “School District No. 73 Business Company.” Since 2010 the program has served about 500 students, mainly in China, and it grosses roughly $150,000 in annual revenue, most of which goes to pay teacher salaries. District superintendent Terry Sullivan also acts as president of the company and says he manages it from the corner of his desk for no extra pay. “We haven’t used any taxpayer money for this and we’re just in the beginning stages,” Sullivan says.

He sees online education as the way of the future and the school district’s entrepreneurial activities are positioned to grow in this direction. Last June its business company inherited LearnNowBC from the non-profit and now disbanded Virtual School Society. LearnNowBC offers online education free of charge to more than 100,000 B.C. public school students and the responsibility comes with $2.1 million in Ministry of Education funding. Sullivan wants to sell this virtual school program to overseas students who have the means to pay. “We think LearnNowBC is a very valuable asset and that many international students will be interested,” Sullivan says.

As might be expected, the association representing B.C.’s public-school teachers is critical of the province diverting resources to overseas schools and for-profit companies run by school districts starved for cash. According to the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation director of research and technology Larry Kuehn, the problem is one of inequity, with urban schools benefiting disproportionately from foreign-student revenue. Between 2001 and 2011, nine Lower Mainland districts and the Greater Victoria school district received more than 73 per cent of the $1.1 billion international students paid to attend the province’s public K-12 schools.

“It’s only natural that districts with successful international programs will be able to offer valuable professional development to teachers and offer things like a wider selection of elective courses,” Kuehn says. On the other hand, he acknowledges, “We have members with jobs who wouldn’t have jobs if international students weren’t there.” According to the BCTF’s own research, the province’s 60 school districts reported that in 2010/11 international students paid the salaries of approximately 380 additional teachers.

Newly minted education minister Don McRae dismisses complaints about inequity between “have” and “have-not” school districts: “Even though I think we have robust public funding, with declining enrolment, if international students enable districts to offer more classes and electives, I think that’s a great thing,” McRae says.

Back around the oval table at the West Vancouver School District office, Maureen Smiley and Michael Frankowski are unabashed fans of international student programs. They savour the district’s autonomy to grow and benefit thanks to international students and don’t apologize for West Van’s success. When it comes to for-profit companies run by school districts, they share the BCTF’s skepticism. Having watched New Westminster’s difficulties, Smiley wonders why a school district would bother to take on the burden of a for-profit business, with all the accounting and governance headaches that come with the territory, not to mention managing offshore schools in countries with vastly different political and cultural climates.

For Frankowski and Smiley, bringing international students to B.C. classrooms is good education policy and you don’t need an unwieldy business company to achieve that goal. “We always remind ourselves what our core business is,” says Frankowski. “And that’s to offer a top-notch education to international students.”