When Valentin Mortier competes in a tennis match at home in France, his friends don't often come to see him play.
But when the high school junior started playing on sports teams at Tampa Preparatory School, where he's attending as an international exchange student, he was surprised to see so many classmates at his games.
"A lot of students from school come to see their friends," he said.
Mortier is one of 17 international exchange students staying with local host families and attending Tampa Prep this year. The school has often had international students, but it began a dedicated international student program two years ago, starting with eight students. Last school year, they had 15.
Families abroad, especially from Europe and South America, who want to send their children to study in the United States, are interested in diverse nondenominational private schools in urban areas like Tampa, Miami or Jacksonville, said Dennis Facciolo, Tampa Prep director of admissions.
"They like the mosaic of students here," he said.
The school has drawn the attention of international agencies placing students in American day schools. Tampa Prep now works primarily with Educatius International, CCI Greenheart Cultural Exchange programs and STS, all companies that work with families in various countries to find educational programs for their children abroad.
International exchange students go through the same admissions process as American students, but also have to take a test to demonstrate English fluency. The agencies then set the students up with host families in the area. Some are Tampa Prep families, and some aren't, though most have children who have attended other private schools.
Most of the parents send their children to American high schools for the cultural experience, Facciolo said. Sometimes, the students end up at American universities, but often they go to college at home. They get involved in sports and school clubs while they're here because most of their schools at home don't have such activities.
"In France if I want to play soccer it's outside of school," Mortier said.
High school sports aren't important in most of their home countries because college sports aren't either. "It's really competitive here," said Amanda de Souza, a sophomore from Brazil, who plays basketball. "We have practice every day."
Some of the students said going to a new school was difficult at first. They weren't used to speaking and thinking in English so much.
"I had to really think about what I have to say," said Katerina Popiolkova, a senior from the Czech Republic. "Now I just say it."
They've enjoyed a lot of new things while they've been here, including Halloween, milk shakes from Steak 'N Shake, Tampa Bay Rays games, and learning a little of each other's languages.
But sometimes, they miss home, especially the food.
"Even if you go to a restaurant from my country here it tastes different," de Souza said. "It tastes like American food."
The international students offer new perspectives on the events taught in history class, and have learned that stereotypes about American high schools aren't all true. The cliques aren't as extreme as in the movies, and there's much more camaraderie among classmates, they said.
Tampa Prep has had an international club where students learn about other countries and try new foods. But with more international students on campus, "now that club is huge," said Jillian Stanton, assistant to the head of school. "It's really enriched what we already had."
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.