MILLINOCKET, Maine — Will Daisey’s wife is pregnant with their first child, and if things go according to plan, that child will attend Stearns High School with as many as 200 Chinese students — and that’s fine with Daisey.
The 37-year-old Millinocket resident told town leaders at a meeting Thursday at Stearns that with Millinocket’s economy stagnant, high school enrollment declining and school costs rising, the town could use the infusion of young American families and jobs that the Chinese students would draw if the town pursued plans to be-gin allowing them to attend Stearns at $27,000 per student.
“We just want to live here and have a good education for our child,” Daisey said after speaking at the meeting. “We’d rather have more American people in here, but I have nothing against the Chinese kids.”
Opinions expressed during Thursday’s meeting, the first devoted solely to the Chinese-student initiative, were generally favorable to the plan, which calls for having as many as 25 Chinese students at Stearns next September and eventually increasing the number to 200. About 100 people attended the meeting.
If the plan succeeds, Superintendent Kenneth Smith said, Stearns will become the nation’s first public school to have almost half of its enrollment be Chinese students.
One resident, J. Atlee Goodwin, told Millinocket school committee members that allowing Chinese students at Stearns would be disrespectful to the almost 60,000 U.S. service personnel killed in the Vietnam War fighting the China-supported forces of North Vietnam.
Resident John Dicentes said officials should consolidate the number of students presently enrolled in local schools — about 540 as of Jan. 1, officials say — in one school rather than adopt the proposal.
“It’s all about keeping the schools open and keeping jobs, but we should downsize with the way it’s been going,” Dicentes said.
Reconfiguring one school for all local youths would be too costly and educationally inadvisable, officials said.
Granite Street School, Stearns High School and the adjoining Millinocket Middle School have a recommended capacity of about 1,100 students — 300 at Granite and 800 at Stearns and the middle school, officials said. The individual recommended capacities for Stearns and the middle school were not available Friday.
Since 2004, when Granite’s enrollment peaked at 259 pupils, the school’s enrollment fell to 214 in 2008 and was at 228 on Jan. 1. At the middle school, 191 pupils attended in 2004, 145 in 2008 and 121 on Jan. 1. At Stearns, 269 students attended in 2004, 227 in 2008 and 192 on Jan. 1, officials said.
Several speakers expressed concerns about Chinese student competition hindering local students. Smith called that unlikely. Academic standing, he said, is determined over several years, and the Chinese would enroll for one year, though they could reapply.
The plan provides for more educational opportunities, as Lee Academy, a pioneer in Asian student enrollment, will allow Millinocket and Chinese students to attend the 14 advanced placement courses at Lee.
Chinese students want to experience Millinocket, said the school’s adviser on student recruitment and cultural awareness, Suzanne Fox of Fox Consulting Services.
Given the heavy pollution and population crush of urban and rural China, Millinocket is desirable for its beauty and its curriculum’s encouragement of creativity and independent thinking. Chinese education emphasizes memorization and conformity, Fox said.
Town Councilor Michael Madore called the initiative the “first truly legitimate plan” for revitalizing the town in years. Besides the tuition profits, the influx would carry at least $5,000 in discretionary income per student, he said.
School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins listed several problems with the plan, including the need for student housing and supervision, adverse effects upon school test scores and the need for large amounts of front money.
“This could be an unmitigated disaster if we don’t do it right,” he said.
After the meeting, he said he feared that 200 students would overwhelm the culture of the school and the community.
Other board members disagreed. School Committee member Thomas Malcolm said the tuition and student influx represented the first time in years that local educational opportunities could grow instead of shrinking through budget cuts.
“There is nothing negative to this,” Malcolm said. “We are way ahead of where we thought we would be. The momentum is going. We can’t let it die. We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. We have a lot to offer here. Why not give this a chance?”