MILLINOCKET, Maine — Sixty Chinese students enrolled at Stearns High School this coming September might seem like a lot, but the school system could have accommodated another 100, officials say.
Superintendent Ken Smith and Millinocket School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins told residents during a meeting of the panel on Tuesday that they had received an offer to house 100 technical school students ages 18-20 who would attend Stearns, possibly in a wing of the school.
It would have been a tech school postgraduate program for the Chinese to help them hone their English language skills and to better understand American culture, said Hopkins, but school officials rejected the idea for several reasons.
“It’s an age group that I don’t think would be good to bring in to the school system – they’re too much older,” Hopkins said.
Officials, Hopkins said, have their hands full with the 60 high schoolers from China who will attend Stearns later this year.
Smith received national news headlines for announcing last fall that Stearns would accept as many as 200 Chinese students in an effort to bolster school coffers depleted by budget cuts, offset a shrinking school population and broaden the school’s cultural awareness.
With Hopkins opposing, the committee voted 3-1 on Tuesday that 60 high school-age Chinese students would attend Stearns in September and be housed locally, probably at a local hotel the system would lease for two years, and that Smith would refine aspects of the plan that seemed vague or incorrectly estimated.
Ten of the students would be seniors; the rest in the lower grades, Smith said.
Smith, who visited China several months ago, endeavored to give the 75 residents who attended the meeting a feeling for what they could expect from the community’s Chinese guests. Some of his presentation repeated what was said at a public hearing in January.
His points included:
• “They will far exceed our standards in math and science. They are light years ahead of us,” Smith said of the Chinese students. “Where they need to strengthen themselves is in English. We also have another way of teaching kids, and they want to learn how we do that.”
Chinese schools, Smith said, teach by rote, with heavy emphasis on memorization and little attention paid to creative or independent thinking. American schools do almost the opposite.
• The Chinese will speak at least some English, as they begin second-language educations at what would be the third-grade level in the U.S. and typically study English, Smith said.
“They have a great understanding of the grammatical structure of our language,” Smith said. “They just don’t have opportunity to speak it.”
• The Chinese likely will be quiet students, very respectful of their teachers, and present no significant behavior problems.
Education, Smith said, is revered in China. Government there pays for public education only up to ninth grade, so the Chinese will likely feel very fortunate to be able to continue their secondary-level educations, especially in America.
“Their culture is one of respect and they want to get to know you, see if they can trust you,” Smith said. “Once they develop that trust, as they have at Lee Academy, they continue to go back and reinforce that relationship.”
• The students would likely come from affluent families, with a good deal of discretionary spending money — good for the struggling Katahdin region economy. School officials will provide them with regular transportation to Bangor and Lincoln, but they will be encouraged to shop most often in the region, Smith said.
“These people are not poor kids from China,” he said.
He added that many of their parents are likely to buy homes in the Katahdin region in order to have some place to stay during visits.
• The Chinese students will have their own health insurance and otherwise pay for their own health care, Smith said.
School officials are working with officials at Millinocket Regional Hospital to establish a working relationship for the Chinese students, Smith said.
Town Manager Eugene Conlogue, who attended the meeting, said he thought the China initiative is a good idea. But he is concerned that he had heard nothing about any efforts to acclimate local residents to the Chinese or to raise local cultural awareness.
“The local folks need to be very welcoming of the [Chinese],” Conlogue said. “We want to ensure that they [Chinese] will be allowed to participate in community efforts.”