WISCASSET, Maine — The anticipation was palpable Friday morning at Wiscasset High School when a delegation arrived from China to find out why a student from halfway around the world would want to study here.
In windows at the front of the building, Chinese characters proclaimed “Welcome to Wiscasset High School.”
Inside, a group of red-shirted volunteer student ambassadors waited with school administrators, each clutching a minute-by-minute itinerary of the day’s events.
In the cafeteria, a computerized slide show stood by and white-clothed tables held bags of gifts for the guests.
In the gymnasium, the 214 students who attend the school in grades nine through 12 waited patiently for the Chinese contingent to arrive.
And Principal Deb Taylor bustled about making sure all preparations were in order. When the bus arrived, she strode out the door to greet the foreign visitors.
Friday morning’s visit was the culmination of two years of preparation for Wiscasset’s foray into the business of attracting international students. RSU 12 Superintendent Gregory Potter said the district decided to focus on China because that country sends so many students to the United States.
“We’re very excited about the opportunity for cultural and educational exchange,” said Potter to the 20 Chinese educators during the whole-school assembly. “We see this as an opportunity for your students as well as ours to create some lifelong relationships.”
After performances by the elementary and high school choruses, the educators were given room-by-room tours of the school, packets of information about Maine and the midcoast region and answers to a slew of questions, which were asked and answered through translators.
Daniel Yu, a consultant with a New York- and Shanghai-based firm called UDA Education Consulting Group, said the educators had already visited Columbia, Princeton and New York Universities and were departing Friday afternoon for similar tours in the Jacksonville, Fla. area. He said of the 300,000 Chinese students who study in other countries every year, more than half of them come to the United States. Those numbers are increasing every year, he said, as China’s economic expansion puts more money in citizens’ pockets. For many families, sending children abroad frees them of China’s rigid test-centered educational system.
“Some students are not satisfied with that and they want to try an alternative for their education,” said Yu. “It goes back to Confucious’ idea that you invest your fortune to get your kids educated.”
Yu said there is also a pervading awareness in China of the economic ties it has with the United States and that many Chinese see studying in America as a way to foster further relationships between the two countries.
But why Wiscasset?
“The big schools may give some attention to our students, but not the full attention that this school could give them,” said Yu. “Education is not simple and not just about tests. It’s a whole process.”
Zhenzhen Wang, an English teacher who was part of the group from China’s Taishun Yucai High School in Zhejiang Province, said small schools like Wiscasset High are attractive to Chinese families who seek a setting where their children will receive individual attention.
“I like the style of the teachers here,” she said. “Our students would love to come here. The sea area is so beautiful.”
Conversely, Wiscasset High students are intrigued by the possibility of welcoming students from overseas, said Student Council President Emma Corwin of Wiscasset, a senior.
“We’re small but it’s a really nice atmosphere,” she said. “It would really be a good change for us if they decide to come here.”
Sophomore David Marcus of Wiscasset agreed.
“We had an exchange student last year from Colombia,” he said. “People looked up to him and he was fun. He was really accepted into the school. I really hope this will pull through for us.”
Now all that’s left to do is wait to see if any students opt for Wiscasset. Officials here are hoping to welcome the first Chinese students here next fall.
“There’s been a lot of work to prepare for this day,” said Principal Taylor. “I hope they bring good news about us back to their country.”