MILLINOCKET, Maine — Millinocket schools could be the first public schools in Maine to recruit large numbers of international students to offset declining enrollments, rising school costs and a struggling local economy, officials said Monday.
Superintendent Kenneth Smith’s plan calls for enrolling as many as 200 tuition-paying students, most from the Far East, by next September and housing them locally, possibly within dormitories not yet built.
“We will probably see 100, and if everything falls into place, we could see 200,” Smith said. “Certainly by three years we will have 300. We hope to have dormitories. Certainly community members will be taking kids in, but I see no reason why we can’t do all of the accommodations.”
Smith toured downtown buildings last week with an architect, is working with an international cultural consultant and will be traveling to China next month as he continues to shape the plan, he said.
Public schools regularly host exchange or international students who study in the U.S. for a year, but if Smith is successful, Millinocket schools might be the first in the state where so many international high school-age students would reside, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.
“I don’t know if any public schools have done this. I am not sure any have done that kind of active pursuit, but some have talked about it,” Connerty-Marin said. “I am not aware of any that have actively pursued that on a large scale.”
The 200 high schoolers would constitute close to half the system’s entire population. Millinocket schools have about 550 students enrolled this year, about half of what the school system can accommodate, Smith said.
He acknowledged that Lee Academy’s international student program is a key influence. For the last three years, academy Superintendent Bruce Lindberg has been creating American high schools in South Korea and China while increasing the number of foreign students studying and residing at the academy.
Millinocket School Committee members met with Lindberg to discuss the idea this spring.
In June, Lindberg helped open the $11.2 million Daegu International School of Lee Academy in Daegu, South Korea, the country’s third-largest city. Lee Academy also has established the Shenzhen American International School in Shenzhen, a subtropical port city of 12 million in southern China.
The University of Maine is also working with Lee Academy to broaden its recruiting efforts in East Asia.
Reached Monday night via Skype in Daegu, where it was 8 a.m. Tuesday, Lindberg expressed doubt that Smith could attract as many as 200 foreign students.
“I just think that’s overoptimistic. I would say they would be easily able to attract 25 to 50” in the beginning, Lindberg said. “There is a huge demand out there for one-year studies in the U.S. Many of them will decide to stay in the U.S. beyond one year, and the way the law reads now, they would have to go to private school for their second, third and fourth years.”
Smith said he believes that the students would merely have to reregister with state or federal officials to study in the Millinocket School Department beyond one year. Connerty-Marin said he saw no legal impediments to enrolling that many international students in a public school.
Lee Academy is a private school that contracts with the Eastern Maine Area School Systems — the former SAD 30 and Union 110 — to teach high schoolers from Lakeville, Lee, Springfield, Webster, Winn and the plantations of Carroll, Drew, Macwahoc and Reed.
The school has about 70 international students this year, including 40 from the Far East, Lindberg said.
“What’s interesting is this year we have kids from 16 countries. That’s a record,” Lindberg said. “We have finally broken into South America. We have kids from Venezuela and Brazil this year. Then, you know, we have kids from Senegal and have added an Ethiopian student, too.”
With typical foreign tuition running from $30,000 to $44,000 per student, the international enrollment could pay its own expenses, Smith said.
If the students were from China or South Korea, a dormitory in the downtown area would be a boon to town merchants much the way that Lee and Lincoln Lakes region businesses have benefited from the Lee Academy internationals — only much more so, Lindberg and Smith said.
Most Asians who have money enough to send their children abroad for schooling would be thought of as upper middle class in this country, if not rich, Smith and Lindberg said. The students would also enrich the local culture while learning how Americans live.
Yet many questions remain, including who would front the money to build dormitories in Millinocket and otherwise accommodate the influx of foreign students, Town Manager Eugene Conlogue said.
“The superintendent is doing a great job with this idea. A lot of people support it. I support it, but the town and the Town Council need to hear more of the specifics of the plan to be certain of it,” Conlogue said Monday.
“Personally, I would be excited about the idea because of the very distinct addition of culture that international students would bring to Millinocket,” he added. “Clearly, there would be a positive impact to the town’s economy if this idea were to bring significant numbers of students in.”
According to the last census, Millinocket has about 5,000 residents. It typically has an unemployment rate almost twice as high as the state’s, especially since its paper mill closed about three years ago.
Conlogue said he imagined that the council and school committee would meet sometime after Smith’s trip to discuss the plan. No date has been set.
Smith said he will be working with the community over the next year to prepare for the influx of students.
“We don’t want a hit and miss. When we start this thing, we will do everything we can to prevent problems happening and to lessen the culture shock on both sides,” Smith said. “We want to do it right.”
In addition to Lee Academy, other private high schools in Maine have foreign students — or are seeking to recruit them.
Maine Central Institute, a semiprivate school in Pittsfield, had international students from 20 countries this past year who made up about one-quarter of the student body.
John Bapst Memorial High School, an independent, nonsectarian school in Bangor that serves 445 students in grades nine through 12, will launch a first-ever boarding program beginning in the fall of 2011 to help lure more national and international students to Bangor.