- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Birkan Gokbag says his English, which he has studied since he was young, has improved greatly in just two months.

“It’s easier to understand. My writing is better,” said Gokbag, 17, from Istanbul and a student at Quaker Valley High School, where he’s reading Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Shakespeare in his English class.

Gokbag is one of several international students at the Leetsdale high school, which has hosted students from several countries for three years.

These students are enrolled through the district’s F-1 student visa sponsorship program. Quaker Valley is one of a few schools in the Pittsburgh area, most of them private schools, with such a program.

Unlike exchange students, students such as Gokbag pay tuition and study at the school for several years instead of a semester.

Nearly all plan to attend college in the United States and, if things work out, possibly settle here. Gokbag is interested in attending Penn State University or the University of Pittsburgh.

The families pay Quaker Valley tuition since they don’t live in the district. Tuition for secondary students this year is $15,196.

Except for Gokbag, all of the F-1 students at Quaker Valley this year are from China. The district’s superintendent, Heidi Ondek, got the idea for the exchange when she visited China several years ago.

“The program is beneficial for our own students and families. The students live in the community and add to the diversity of the school,” Ondek said.

Students who study in the United States master English at a much higher rate, Ondek said.

“The Chinese covet American public education. Education here is a reflection of opportunity to people in China,” she said.

Since the 2013-14 school year, Quaker Valley has hosted students from China, Turkey and Germany.

The suburbs of Pittsburgh are a different world from most anywhere in China, said Jingxuan Qiu, a Quaker Valley student from Dalian, China.

“We don’t really have that game in China,” Qiu said of football. Yet only days after arriving, she’d learned who the Steelers are.

She is interested in studying literature at Pitt or Penn State.

At 15, Peiyao Gao, known as Brian to classmates, is one the youngest F-1 students in the district. Unlike Qiu, the Golden State Warriors fan is quite familiar with American sports.

Gao, from Beijing, plays guard on the Quaker Valley basketball team. A ninth-grader enrolled in classes including geometry and English composition, Gao plans to stay in the United States through high school and likely for college.

Some of the visiting students say the United States is not what they expected.

“I imagined America as a concrete jungle like New York. It’s not,” said Meiling “Alex” Li of Shenzhen in southeastern China.

He would like to study computer engineering at Penn State.

F-1 visas allow students to spend one year in American public schools, or multiple years in private or parochial schools.

The Department of Homeland Security lists Mount Lebanon, Quaker Valley, West Allegheny and Beaver Valley as Pittsburgh-area public school districts allowed to sponsor the visa students. Tuition rates are based on each district’s cost per pupil.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1MC4dOZ

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com


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