Lee Academy speaker tells Maine educators how to recruit Chinese exchange students

Posted March 17, 2012, at 3:37 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2012, at 6:06 p.m.
Bruce Lindberg
Bruce Lindberg

LEE, Maine — Lee Academy leaders will welcome 100 Chinese foreign-exchange students this summer for four weeks of Advanced Placement or college-level courses that will produce about $240,000 in revenue for the semipublic high school.

And if Maine is lucky, at least some of those students from Beijing, Shanghai and other major Chinese cities will enroll for several years at Lee Academy, paying more than $20,000 each annually, before attending a Maine college and maybe encouraging other Chinese to move to Maine and invest in business here.

That’s Bruce Lindberg’s dream, and why 16 high school and college officials and school board members were at the school’s auditorium Friday night. Its Chinese student presence is an educational enhancement and a financial windfall for Lee, and the school’s headmaster said he wants to see more Maine public and private schools reap it.

“One of our goals [at Lee] is being realized: We are generating income from having Asian students here all 12 months of the year, not just the school months,” Lindberg said.

Lindberg introduced Brian Qian, director of the International High School Division of the Sinoway International Education Group, a Beijing-based organization that describes itself as the first and only firm in China devoted to providing international college-level summer courses for Chinese who want to study abroad.

Besides pitching the expertise of his firm, Qian told the educators about his firm’s work establishing the AP-course summer camp at Lee and how they could begin to develop international programs for Chinese and other Asian-born students at their institutions.

Chinese parents who can afford it really do want to see their children educated in American classrooms, Qian said, for several intertwining reasons. With China’s emergence as a world economic power, more Chinese are seeking international experience, particularly recruiters at Chinese secondary schools.

“When students have experiences abroad, the students find a way to mature,” Qian said, adding that this applied to American high schools as well. “You know that the Chinese population is huge, and the demand for students with international experience is huge.”

Qian, whose firm has worked with schools in San Diego and Utah, estimated that he could put high schools in touch with close to 200 Chinese students that might be interested in attending U.S. schools. Lindberg said that Sinoway was the best student-recruiting agency he has yet worked with in almost five years of Asian market research and student recruitment.

A private academy founded in 1845, Lee has contracts with local school boards to educate students from Lee, Springfield, Webster and Winn. The school also serves students from Greenbush, Kingman, Topsfield, Vanceboro and the Passamaquoddy Tribe of Maine. Tuition, room and board is approximately $26,000 a year for seven-day boarding students.

Jim Underwood, superintendent of schools at Washington County’s AOS 77, said Friday’s forum gave him another potential contact overseas.

“My main interest in coming out here was to see how we might invite Chinese students to our high schools,” Underwood said of Calais High School and Shead High School of Eastport.

Like Underwood, RSU 25 Superintendent Jim Boothby said he would like to start recruiting Chinese student for Bucksport High School as soon as is practicable. Stearns High School Principal Kelly Weiss — whose boss, Superintendent Kenneth Smith, is in China now, working to recruit more students — said she wanted to learn how to draw more students to her school, which has three Chinese exchange students this year.

“Our [Chinese] students are having a wonderful time,” Weiss said, “and we are definitely looking to expand our offerings.”

It’s a somewhat uncomfortable subject for public school administrators unused to seeing students as potential sources of income, Underwood said, but recruiting Chinese students, as Lee and Stearns of Millinocket have done, is an elegant solution to a problem all Maine schools face: balancing rising costs with declining state funding and student enrollments.

Boothby attended the meeting with David Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director, so Milan could see whether the China school connection could lead to business investment in Maine. Milan, who is already working to draw Chinese entrepreneurs and investments to Maine, predicted tangible results within three or four years.

“You’re not going to see Suzuki moving here anytime soon,” Milan said, “but what Brian said is that his organization is working with young Chinese entrepreneurs in China today. That’s who we hope to get here. Maine is a great place for the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Qian’s first piece of advice: Develop China programs slowly. Lee Academy – which gets 90 to 100 international students annually, including about a third from China — had an enormous advantage over most public schools when it started pioneering Asian student enrollment in 2008. It already had a large international student program, with dormitories and workers devoted to dealing with international student issues.

Qian advocated schools first holding small summer programs like those at Lee Academy, which holds a three-week summer English as a second language and American acculturation program that the new AP summer effort will complement. Then schools should create year-round programs or perhaps go further as has Lee Academy, which now has several overseas campuses.

“We should be realistic. We cannot think big,” Qian said. “We want to do it gradually.”

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