Parachute kids — unaccompanied minors sent to an overseas school — make up only a small fraction of total overseas students but are also the fastest-growing demographic, says the organizer of the International Education Expo (IEE).
“This time we’re seeing a lot more people getting ready to go overseas for high school,” says Brian Hockertz, who has organized IEE for 17 years.
He is also president of Oh! Study, a major Taipei-based provider of overseas school application services.
“Before, we didn’t even get a hundred [applications]. This year, we’re going to send out hundreds, that’s what it’s looking like now.”
Parents who have approached the application services provider appear motivated by the impending 12-year compulsory education system, which was introduced on Jan. 1, 2011, approved by the legislature last June and comes into effect on students currently in the eighth grade.
The plan aims to provide examination-free admission into high schools and vocational schools. Under the 12-year system, a junior-high school student who chooses not to take special recruitment exams is admitted automatically to the closest high school.
But parents of mid-level achievers suspect a losing proposition, Hockertz says.
“Before it wasn’t nice but it was predictable. You take the test and you went to wherever you got in,” he says.
Under the new system, the highest achievers can test into top high schools, while the lowest achievers place into a school they could not have tested into before.
“The kid in the middle — before, he couldn’t get into a top school but could get a good school. Now people have to attend the closest school to their house, and he thinks, ‘Okay, I should have been in at a pretty good school and now I’m going to an agricultural vocational high school,” Hockertz says.
“What’s happening right now the Ministry of Education is saying, ‘Trust me, it’ll be good,’ and people are responding, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
A brief history of the parachute kid
For Taiwan, the practice of sending unaccompanied minors overseas was most noticeable from 1980 through the 1990s.
Early on in the Martial Law era, the Ministry of Education enforced stringent regulations on overseas study, sending out only a few thousand students per year, mostly adults bound for US graduate schools.
In the 1980s, as restrictions eased and the GDP rose, a wave of Taiwanese parents chose overseas education for their children. Some students attended boarding schools, while others went to private schools and lived with extended family, friends of family or hired caretakers.
A 1990 UCLA thesis estimated that the US alone was hosting up to 40,000 Taiwanese parachute children.
Since 2000, the trend has slowed on a combination of factors, including revisions to US immigration law, high-profile kidnapping cases and Taiwanese media coverage on the challenges minors encounter without parental supervision.
“In the 1990s our center would send maybe 400 or 500 kids to high school [a year], and then it dropped,” Hockertz says.
Today, the Ministry of Education no longer tracks the number of parachute kids, which it calls “little overseas students” (小留學生). In the latest official estimate, dated 2003, an interior ministry official said there were only about 18,000 parachute kids in the US, out of 45,000 worldwide.