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Chinese students coming to US middle schools? It's starting to happen.

Less than a decade ago, virtually no Chinese students attended American middle and high schools, but that is rapidly changing, as Chinese students seek a different educational experience.

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Siyi Chen (l.) and Xiaoli Liu were two of Ohio State University's 115 first-year undergraduate students from China in 2008. Now many Chinese students are coming to America at younger ages.

Jay LaPrete/AP/File

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Peggy Wang has lived in China her entire life. A successful, English-speaking executive, she frequently travels abroad for work, but never imagined that her most recent itinerary would include dropping off her 15-year-old daughter at a prestigious boarding school outside Washington.

While there is a long history of Chinese students pursuing advanced degrees abroad, especially in the United States, Ms. Wang's daughter, Susan Li, is part of a rapidly growing trend in which Chinese students are choosing to seek their education overseas as early as middle school or high school.

In the 2010-11 school year alone, nearly 24,000 high school-age Chinese were studying in the US, more than 15 percent of the total number of Chinese students in the US overall, up from virtually none five years ago. US middle schools hosted 6,725 Chinese middle schoolers in 2011, up from just 65 in 2006, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

This phenomenon, known as students "growing younger" in Chinese, is seen as resulting from two key interrelated factors: the rigidity of the Chinese education system, and a desire to avoid the gaokao, the country's rigorous college-entrance exam, for which six-day-a-week preparation begins in 9th grade.

Not surprisingly, officials at schools with a significant number of Chinese students say the students have heightened the sense of competition and achievement. But they also say the students have helped others see a more nuanced and human view of China. For many of the Chinese students themselves, it is most likely the beginning of lives lived abroad, given that the core of their education will have come in English – and without the gaokao.

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