MILLINOCKET, Maine — With seven of a possible 60 Chinese students committed to attending Stearns High School next month, school committee members will meet Tuesday to determine how best to run a reduced international student program, officials said Thursday.
It’s still possible that the program would have the full complement committee members hoped for. One of the 14 recruiters the committee has working for it in China has yet to deliver on promises he has made. He might still, but time is getting short, Superintendent Kenneth Smith said.
“He keeps saying yes, we will have these [student commitments], but we have no numbers so we are going to have the meeting and see what we are going to do,” committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins said.
Bad publicity about regional problems such as high regional unemployment and paper mill closures or the criticism offered on June 6 in the online version of The Global Times, a state-owned, state-operated newspaper in China — which school leaders sharply disputed — might be among the reasons parents who wanted their children attending Stearns have abruptly backed away, Smith said.
“If you go to stories [online] about the mills closing wherever they appear, they [parents] latch onto that,” Smith said Thursday. “But that’s not an excuse. Perhaps it’s an explanation of why all of a sudden some of these people aren’t coming.
“We have to be optimistic and say they might still come,” Smith added, “and we are going to give those kids that come the best experience they ever had.”
With Hopkins opposing, the committee voted 3-1 in March for a plan under which 60 high school-age Chinese students would attend Stearns and be housed locally, probably at a local hotel the system would lease for two years. Smith was to refine aspects of the plan that seemed vague or incorrectly estimated.
The idea for an international student program, which school leaders first discussed about 1½ years ago, is expected to earn the school system $24,000 tuition per student, or $1.4 million from 60 students. That would be enough to cover the program’s expenses and offset most of an enormous tax revenue loss caused by a revaluation of the Katahdin Avenue paper mill.
Adjusting the school department’s budget to cover the loss of anticipated revenue will be part of Tuesday’s meeting, Hopkins said. He believes that the budget can be adjusted without harming programs.
Several Maine high school systems and the University of Maine are launching international student programs featuring Chinese high schoolers. One of the largest programs is at Lee Academy, which draws almost 100 international students annually and just concluded a three-week summer program aimed at recruiting Chinese students for Lee or other Maine high schools or colleges.
Lee officials say that Chinese parents are very eager to send their children to American schools to learn English and learn about other cultures, as vast differences exist between American and Chinese classrooms and teaching styles.
No one is considering eliminating Millinocket’s international program, Hopkins said.
“No matter what, we will go with whatever number of students we have,” he said. “We feel we have a good program, and if we can get students here to experience our area and our program, word would get out and we would build on our program in this manner.”
While t he students were supposed to be housed at a local hotel, the Katahdin Inn, no lease has been signed, and the hotel’s owner has been sympathetic to the department’s situation, Hopkins said.
School officials probably can still get a lease with the hotel if the recruiter comes through with a large enough number of students. If not, several families have offered to host the international students.
Hopkins places no blame on Smith or on Suzanne Fox of Fox Intercultural Consulting Services, which is advising school officials on the international student program, for the lack of 60 student commitments. Fox recommended the recruiters, Hopkins said.
“They both approached this in good faith and they can only make their decisions based on what they are being told,” Hopkins said. “Understand, too, that we are dealing with a foreign government whose way of doing business and whose culture are very different from ours.”
Tuesday’s meeting at Stearns High School will start at 4 p.m.