MILLINOCKET, Maine — School Superintendent Kenneth Smith will head to China on Friday on a mission that could relieve the School Department, if not the town, of many fiscal problems.
Smith and three private-school administrators will visit Beijing, Shanghai and several smaller cities in an effort to recruit hundreds of high school-age students to attend their schools next year. His plan calls for enrolling as many as 200 tuition-paying students by September 2011 and housing them locally, possibly in dormitories that have yet to be built.
With typical foreign tuition running from $30,000 to $44,000 per student, the international enrollment could pay its own expenses, significantly boost the schools’ shrinking enrollment, greatly vary the Katahdin region’s culture and provide a potent revenue stream to a school system that needs it, Smith has said.
He expects to visit the Great Wall of China, hopes to share a portion of his trip with town pupils over Skype and believes the trip’s pace will be hectic.
“We don’t have any time to ourselves, really,” Smith said Monday. “All night and day, they are going to have us going.”
Much of his planning — for dormitories and the school’s foreign-student program, among other things — will depend on how well his recruiting efforts go, he said.
“It all depends on the number of kids we get,” Smith said. “We are looking at all kinds of possibilities.”
He will bring many small gifts, including snowmobile club calendars, illustrative of Millinocket to help smooth the way.
Smith appears to be the first public school administrator in Maine, if not the United States, to attempt to recruit large numbers of foreign students to repopulate and economically revitalize a public school.
Mel MacKay, head of school at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor; Michael McQuarrie of Erskine Academy in South China; and a New Hampshire private school recruiter will accompany him on the trip.
Their efforts follow those of Lee Academy Headmaster Bruce Lindberg. For the past three years, Lindberg has been creating American high schools in South Korea and China while increasing the number of foreign students studying and living at the academy.
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 port city of 12 million in southern China.
The University of Maine also is working with Lee Academy to broaden its recruiting efforts in East Asia.
Maine’s private schools have a substantial lead on the public school efforts. 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.
Bapst, an independent, nonsectarian school in Bangor that serves 445 students in grades nine through 12, will launch a boarding program beginning in the fall of 2011 to help lure more national and international students to Bangor.
Since the story broke last month on the Millinocket superintendent’s efforts, Smith has been the subject of several national media inquiries, he said, including one from The New York Times, whose correspondent is spending most of the week in town.
One of the hurdles the public-school effort must overcome, said Thomas Malcolm, chairman of the Millinocket School Committee, is state education laws requiring exchange students to re-register annually to attend public school in Maine.
School workers are addressing that with the Maine Department of Education, Smith said. They want to change the law to allow four- or five-year study plans.