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In Victoria, Glenlyon Norfolk School gives foreign students a chance to knit themselves into everyday life of a Canadian family

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Currently more than 60 foreign students participate in the family boarding program at Glenlyon Norfolk School, a 710-student private school in Victoria, B.C.

When foreign students arrive at a Canadian private school, they usually choose between one of two housing options: board on campus or billet with a host family.

Five years ago, with an eye to the overseas market, Glenlyon Norfolk School offered another option: Foreign students would live with a staff member or Canadian family with a child at the independent JK-12 co-ed day (no boarding) school in Victoria.

“We wanted to go into the international side because we are an IB [International Baccalaureate] and Round Square [holistic teaching philosophy] school and we value the internationalism,” says Chad Holtum, deputy head of school at GNS. “But we didn’t want to build traditional boarding houses. We went to our parents, faculty and teachers and said, ‘What if we bring in international students who live with you, families that share the same values, mission and vision of the school?’ ”

The response, he says, was overwhelmingly positive. Currently more than 60 foreign students participate in the “family boarding” program at the 710-student school. “The integration piece is just brilliant,” says Mr. Holtum, giving foreign students a chance to knit themselves into the everyday life of a Canadian family.

Last year, with their 18-year-old son Philipp eager for a preuniversity gap year overseas, Nicola and Klemens Baurer of Allensbach, Germany, selected GNS through Breidenbach Educational Consulting, a German-based agency focused exclusively on the Canadian market.

“I thought it is great that the host family knows about the school,” Ms. Baurer says. “They call themselves the GNS family and you felt that: Everybody loved the school. We had a very good feeling to send him to a family connected to the school.”

Their son stayed with a GNS elementary teacher who has a son at the school and also served as host mother to two boys from China, one of 21 countries represented at the school.

“The host mother was so nice and warm,” says Ms. Baurer. “They [the mother and Philipp] got along with each other perfectly.” She says her son, already skilled in English, improved his proficiency in his home-away-from-home environment and gained independence and self-confidence. He now plans to study at a university in Germany.

For Cheryl Alexander, a web and media manager at GNS, participation in the family boarding program meant she and her husband could give their 15-year-old son, Matthew, an only child, what he had long craved: a sibling.

“In a few years, he will head off to university and he will probably have a roommate or roommates,” she says. “I thought it would be a good opportunity for him to experience living with another child.”

For the past three years, Ms. Alexander’s family was host to Ian Tam, a Hong Kong-born student who graduated from GNS in June and is slightly older than Matthew. This fall, Ian’s younger brother Jamie joins the Alexander family, making him a younger “brother” to Matthew.

“I feel because I am a parent here, I can be a much better advocate for Ian and next [school] year for his younger brother,” Ms. Alexander says. “I know the staff, I know the way things work and I know how the curriculum works. ... It is easier for me to help them navigate the school if I am connected to it than if I am an external person.”

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In front, the Alexander family from Victoria: Matthew, Cheryl and Brad. In back, the Tam family from Hong Kong: Jamie, Ian and Brian. As part of the Glenlyon Norfolk School’s extended family, the Alexanders played host to Ian for the past three years and they are playing host to Jamie this year.Supplied

Brian Tam, the boys’ father, was born in Hong Kong, educated in Canada and now works as an engineer in his birth city. He says he initially did not consider Glenlyon Norfolk because it had no boarding, but he took a closer look after hearing about the family boarding program.

“The family-home-stay aspect was what really brought us to GNS,” he says. “I wanted my sons to be totally exposed to a Canadian family and lifestyle.” Ms. Alexander, he adds, “was effectively his [Ian’s] home-stay mom.”

He says the school did “a really excellent job” of matching the overseas families and their children with those connected to the school. With the Alexanders, Mr. Tam says, “our family qualities and values are effectively at the same level.”

Over Ian’s three-year stay, Ms. Alexander says she watched a relationship blossom between Matthew and Ian. “They are very much siblings: they tease each other, wrestle and goof around. They have lots of things in common.”

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Foreign students improve proficiency in English in their home-away-from-home environment and gain independence and self-confidence, say participants in the Glenlyon Norfolk School home-stay option.

The host family receives a monthly stipend from the school to cover food and related costs of having an extra person in the house. The student’s family still pays for school-related costs, such as trips and outdoor activities. But on family outings, such as dinner or a movie, Ms. Alexander says she and her husband pay for the boarded child as they would for their son.

She says her family was enriched by hosting an overseas student. “He [Ian] is like our son now and he has become an integral part of our family,” she says. Her family has travelled to Hong Kong to visit Ian and his family. “We have a wonderful connection.”

When Ian graduated from GNS in June, his father and grandfather came to Victoria for the ceremony and the two families spent time together.

“We are going to miss him [Ian] a lot when he leaves this week,” she says, speaking shortly after his graduation in June.

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