CATERHAM, England - From its imposing Victorian main building surrounded by lush green playing fields to its students dressed in sober dark uniforms and sensible shoes, the Caterham School is the very picture of a British boarding school.
Listen closely, though, to hear the sound of change, for amid the chattering of posh English accents can be heard German, Russian and other languages from the East and beyond. The co-educational student body is a mini-United Nations.
Still, administrators at the 200-year-old school tucked in suburban London want to add a few more brash accents to the mix. They want more Americans, and they want them now.
They're so eager, in fact, they're about to take part in a high-profile British boarding school recruiting trip to Washington, D.C.
"We feel it's a good product that we have to offer, and we'd like people to take part in it," says Rob Davey, Caterham's headmaster. "If we could get four good pupils from America, I'd be delighted. I want to plant the seeds."
Americans? In British boarding schools?
The idea isn't preposterous. The sons and daughters of Americans living abroad have long made up a tiny minority of students at some of Britain's elite academies.
The difference is there's now a push to increase recruitment of Americans, as British boarding schools try to stem declining enrollments by boosting the numbers of overseas applicants.
Caterham is among 14 British schools sending representatives to Washington for the conference of the Association of Boarding Schools. The conference at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel begins tomorrow and concludes with Sunday's marketing fair.
The British are stressing high academic standards, centuries-old traditions, comfortable and secure surroundings, and value for money, with most of the schools charging tuition, room and board of about $20,000 annually.
They admit they may have to overcome some lingering stereotypes of boarding schools being harsh places where the showers are cold, the morning runs are long, and the headmasters brandish canes to instill discipline.
"The cold showers and rigorous Christianity, those days are well and truly gone," says Paul High, a senior consultant for the Independent Schools Information Service, which is leading the Washington mission.
At British boarding schools, you're just as likely to encounter state-of-the-art computer and recreational facilities as leaky, dreary dorms. Modern headmasters talk of providing a family atmosphere for children from around the world.
British boarding school boosters can even point to popular literature to promote their cause.
"There has been a resurgence of boarding in this country because of the Harry Potter phenomenon," says High, who recently returned from a recruiting mission in India, where he picked up the latest novel of J. K. Rowling's boy wizard series in counterfeit paperback.
British boarding schools have been forced to adapt to changing economic and social times as the number of full-time boarders declined from 125,000 in 1985 to about 70,000 in private schools today. Among the reasons are cutbacks in the British military - a once rich vein for boarding students - and the increasing unwillingness of many wealthy parents to send their children away to school.
In most cases, it's more difficult to secure a place in an elite day school in London than at a privileged boarding school.
To make up the shortfall, the boarding schools have been recruiting worldwide. Of the 8,000 boarders from overseas, 40 percent are from the Far East and about 10 percent are from North America.
"It's a journey of faith to send your children halfway around the world," High says.
At Caterham, founded in 1811 to educate the sons of Congregational ministers, there are 720 students ages 11 to 18, with 140 boarding. The girls live in a refurbished house overlooking a new gym; the boys are in the main building.
Children from 26 countries attend classes here. A top math student is from Moldova. Last year, a girl from Moscow debated a girl from Texas about the merits of democracy. The Russian won.
Sharing a room are Max Loder, an 18-year-old from Munich, and Malu Zhang, a 17-year-old from Shanghai. The room looks as if it belongs to almost any teen the world over, with Loder favoring posters of half-naked models. Zhang has hung moody black and white pictures of dilapidated factories, while sitting on his desk is a compact disc by The Doors.
The two arrived in the fall and are here to improve their English skills and prepare for entry into English universities. "I thought it would be a little like that movie with Robin Williams, `Dead Poets Society,'" Loder says. "But here there's no snow."
Zhang admits, "At the beginning, it was a little bit hard to fit in. I felt homesick. I had to do everything for myself, without my parents' help. I thought that I should be like a man, not a child."