Since founding the Yali Middle School in Changsha, China, 104 years ago, the Yale-China Association’s work has come full-circle.

What began as a missionary effort by a group of Yale graduates and faculty members has grown into an innovative and little-known exchange program that connects New Haven middle schoolers with a group of their peers in China. This fall, a delegation of 22 ninth-graders from the Yali Middle School traveled to New Haven to visit a local private school for four days of cultural immersion and educational activities. The visit marks the end of the Yali group’s 14-day tour through the United States that concluded on Oct. 2, and for four days they were members of the Foote School community.

The students’ stay in New Haven culminated with a tour of Yale, which was followed by a reception at the Yale-China Headquarters at 442 Temple St. At the reception, Yali students performed a hip-hop routine to Justin Timberlake’s “My Love” for Yale-China administrators, said Nancy Yao-Maasbach, executive director of the Yale-China Association.

Yao-Maasbach explained that the Foote-Yali exchange program, which started four years ago, has been integral to the organization’s efforts to increase American school children’s exposure to China. One Yale student, He Lin ’10, who graduated from Yali middle school, said the school’s close relationship with Yale and New Haven encouraged him to apply to Yale, even though he himself had not participated in the exchange program.

“A lot of people [from Yali] would not have thought of applying to colleges in the United States if [Yali] didn’t have this connection with Yale,” Lin said.

Since its founding in 1905, the Yali school has become one of the foremost preparatory schools in China, Lin said, adding that its connection with Yale encourages its students to apply to American universities.

The Yale-China Association started the Yali-Foote exchange program in 2005 after Foote approached the organization about initiating an intercultural exchange between its students and those in China, said Charlotte Murphy, Director of Communications at the Foote School. Ten of the 21 people on the Foote school’s board of directors graduated from or currently work at Yale; among them is Judith Chevalier ’89, a professor in the School of Management and a former deputy provost for faculty development.

Each year, between 20 and 25 Yali students visit the United States for two weeks in the fall and New Haven for four days. Then, in the spring, the Foote school’s entire ninth-grade class visits the Yali school in Changsha, China, said Carol Maoz, Head of the Foote School. Maoz added that, in addition to the Yali midde schoolers, Foote also hosts a Yali teacher each year, who teaches a Chinese cultural classes to all the students at the K-9 school. She explained that unlike the students who are only in New Haven for a few days, the teacher teaches at the school for all of the fall semester.

This year, the Yali students who visited Foote fished in the West River, taught Chinese games to kindergartners and performed an intercultural show for the Foote community. This spring, when Foote students visit China, many of their hosts will be the very Yali students who visited Yale this fall.

Maoz said Foote parents, faculty members and students were impressed by the Yali students’ English language skills and their openness toward a new culture.

Foote Development Director Ann Baker Pepe, who hosted two Yali female students, said the students were happy to try any new foods she served them — as long as they could put a taste of home on it.

“They would carry this jar of peppery spicy condiment everywhere,” Pepe said, adding that they sometimes spread it on their bagels. Pepe said she tried the condiment, but it was far too spicy for her tastes.

The Pepe family also hosted the Yali exchange teacher, Xiang Jia Xiang, for five weeks, and Pepe said he was enthusiastic about almost everything new to which he was exposed. She said the family invited him to partake in all of their activities, which included water skiing.

“He was just so game about trying everything,” said Pepe, who had initially worried that putting a foreign teacher on water skis might not be a good idea.

However, she added that she should not have been concerned because not only did Xiang survive his water skiing adventure, but he enjoyed it so much that he raved about it to all his students the following day.

A group of Yale graduates and faculty members founded the Yale-China Association in 1901 as the Yale Foreign Missionary Society, according Yale-China’s Web site. In 1906, Dr. Edward Hume founded the Yali Middle School because he wanted to change the focus of the society from religion to education. The name “Yali” comes from a derivation of the Chinese word for Yale.

Correction: October 14, 2009

An earlier version of this article improperly referred to The Foote School, a New Haven private school, as a charter school.