MILLINOCKET, Maine — School Superintendent Kenneth Smith established liaisons at eight China schools that will lead to as many as 200 Chinese students studying at Stearns High School, he said Saturday.
Smith recently completed a tour of several Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, as part of his plan.
“Things went extremely well,” Smith said Saturday. “One of the things that’s important to achieve is the personal contacts. Establishing the relationships takes time but I think that we more than met that goal. We have several people in China that will continue to help us with the screening of students.”
Next September’s goal is to have as many as 25 Chinese students attending Stearns and living with host families. East Millinocket’s Schenck High School has two Chinese exchange students already, he said.
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.
Millinocket School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins said he is cautiously optimistic about the plan.
“I think a realistic goal for us next year would be between 10 to 15 students,” Hopkins said Sunday. “Right now we are working on housing. We have several options we are looking into. Nothing has been finalized.”
A gradual approach, Hopkins said, probably would help allay concerns residents are beginning to express about having a large influx of foreign students at Stearns and about how the plan would be funded.
“Anything new such as this, which is kind of different for a public school, does create a little hesitation, concern and a little anxiety. That’s understandable,” Hopkins said. “I hope to do this so that there is no cost to the taxpayer.”
One of the options Millinocket school officials are pursuing, Smith said, is establishing a relationship with Lee Academy in which all Millinocket students would take Advanced Placement courses at the academy and Chinese students possibly would transfer to Lee after attending Stearns for a year.
As part of the exchange with Lee Academy, academy students would be allowed to use an outing camp near a local pond that the former Great Northern Paper Co. gave Stearns years ago, Hopkins said.
“We send a bus every day to the Region III school in Lee so we would just simply have more of our students get on the bus,” Hopkins said.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security limits foreign high school student enrollments in public schools to one year before they must reapply, a cumbersome process. Given that Lee is a private school — although it contracts with Eastern Maine Area School Systems, the former SAD 30, to educate EMASS students — Chinese students can attend the academy for as many as four years.
Smith’s efforts to get an exception to or elimination of the enrollment regulation have drawn interests from public school educators in Florida, Kansas, New Hampshire, upstate New York, other Maine public schools and the White House. “They are all interested in getting that changed,” Smith said.
“We are considered an exporter — of education. We fall under the category of an exporting business,” Smith said.
Academy Headmaster Bruce Lindberg has said he would welcome closer ties to Millinocket schools. Lindberg’s efforts at establishing Lee Academy satellite schools in China and South Korea, and his guidance, have been very helpful, Smith said.
“Lee Academy is who I want to particularly stay in touch with because Bruce has been so good with this,” Smith said.
This could help the school secure low- or no-interest loans that would help school officials build a dormitory for Chinese students in town, one of school officials’ goals, Smith said.
“We have a Building and Grounds Committee that is proceeding cautiously with this [effort], but this is the kind of thing with which people need to be more aggressive,” Smith said.
Of the $27,000 tentatively set as foreign-student tuition costs, $13,000 would pay for schooling, $14,000 for room and board, Smith said.