Feds approve Chinese exchange students at Stearns High School in Millinocket

Posted March 06, 2011, at 9:35 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has given the OK to Stearns High School to accept students from China, Superintendent Kenneth Smith said Friday.

“We can be a receiving school and take students for one year,” he said.

The approval came about two weeks ago, the superintendent said. The next goal: To get federal officials to accept high-school-age Chinese students for multiyear or four-year terms. Smith said there’s no telling when that might occur.

“It’s the federal government,” he said with a sigh.

School officials hope to have as many as 25 Chinese students at Stearns next September and eventually increase the number to 200. If the plan succeeds, Stearns will become the nation’s first public school to have almost half of its enrollment students from China, officials have said.

Millinocket School Committee members began discussing the idea last spring. After several informal discussions, they formally unveiled it to residents at a public hearing in January and received a generally positive reception, although School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins has publicly expressed doubts about the plan.

At the hearing, Hopkins listed several advantages and 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, Hopkins said he feared that 200 students would overwhelm the culture of the school and the community.

Under the tentative plan, Millinocket schools could transfer Chinese students to Lee Academy after their one-year term is up. In return, all Stearns students would get access to honors or advance placement classes at Lee, officials have said.

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 begin allowing them to attend Stearns at $27,000 per student, Smith and some committee members have said.

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