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Millinocket meetings to focus on China program

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff

MILLINOCKET, Maine — Residents are invited on Jan. 12 to tell school and town leaders what they think of plans to eventually allow as many as 200 students from China to enroll in Stearns High School, officials said Monday.

The 6 p.m. meeting at Stearns High School will feature Superintendent Kenneth Smith briefing attendees on his progress in finding housing and finances to make the plan possible, Millinocket School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins said.

“It will be a kind of a public forum,” Hopkins said Monday, “so we can get some information out to the public, to start informing the public what this program is all about.”

Smith also plans to hold a meeting with students and teachers at Stearns on Jan. 21 to acquaint the school with the plans and to field questions and concerns, he said.

Smith and three private-school administrators traveled to China on Oct. 22 with plans to 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 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, given the state’s shrinking financial support of schools, Smith has said.

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.

School leaders hope to have as many as 25 students enrolled at Stearns and living with host families in September, but plans are far from final, Hopkins said.

“We have to work on financing, and there are a number of other issues that we have to deal with,” Hopkins said, adding that the financial and logistical issues might make delaying the plan necessary.

Hopkins and Smith said they have noticed some signs of resistance to the plan — signs that some residents don’t like the idea of such a large influx of foreign students into Stearns — but haven’t seen much opposition.

School officials have maintained from the beginning of their efforts last spring that some skepticism or resistance would be natural, and always planned to have public meetings to allay concerns.

“I would expect that there are some war veterans, some people that have concerns, as they would with Japan or Germany or any country we fought with over the last 100 years,” Smith said.

Smith said he doesn’t see such things stopping school plans.

“As the state announces their more precarious financial situation, our plan looks better and better,” he said.

School leaders have tried for several years to save money and maintain enrollment by consolidating Millinocket with other school systems but have encountered resistance, particularly from the town’s Katahdin region neighbors.

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