ORONO, Maine — A delegation from Orono High School will board a plane Thursday bound for China’s Hunan Province with the goal of bringing approximately 20 students to the school next year.
Principal Jim Chasse, three teachers, a guidance counselor and a Chinese student attending Orono High School this year will spend the rest of March touring Chinese schools, including a sister school in Changsha, which is about 900 miles south of Beijing.
For Chasse and international program coordinator Mackenzie Gobmyer, it’s a chance to interview students interested in coming to the United States to attend high school and get acclimated to the country and culture before attending a U.S. university or college.
For the English, Spanish and mathematics teachers, the trip is a chance “to learn the culture, to learn about their style of teaching and exchange ideas,” Chasse said.
A Chinese student now enrolled in the program will act as translator for the group when needed and will be an ambassador for the school. He’ll bring along pen drives containing video interviews with his Orono High Chinese classmates who share their experiences at the school.
In the end, Chasse said he hopes to attract between 15 and 20 Chinese students to Orono next year.
Orono High School started courting tuitioned Chinese students three years ago. Last year, seven students decided to seek an overseas education at Orono High. This year, that number grew to nine.
“We intentionally started small,” Chasse said, adding that the school plans to build the program gradually each year.
Orono, a school of about 362 students, has room for another 40 or so without needing an expansion, according to Chasse. He said that would be a good goal for the future of the program.
The school also draws exchange students from countries such as Italy, Sweden, Germany and Argentina and has plans to reach out to students in Russia and Africa, according to Chasse.
In recent years, more and more Maine schools have turned eyes to China while seeking higher enrollment. Lee Academy will field 100 students this summer for four-week Advanced Placement or college-level courses.
Chasse said Orono and other public schools are at a disadvantage when courting international students because students are allowed to attend for one year, whereas they can attend a private school for two or three.
Because of that, there is one Chinese student, a junior, at Orono who will have to transfer to John Bapst Memorial High School next year.
He said there is legislation in the works to change the rule and allow public schools to keep international students for more than one year.
The Chinese students pay $21,000 for a year of tuition at Orono High School. The school gets $13,000 and the other $8,000 goes to the University of Maine, which allows international high school students to live in Somerset Hall dormitory rooms. Gobmyer lives on the same floor as the students, acting as a residence director, Chasse said.
The students get to take advantage of most of the benefits of being a UMaine student, including a MaineCard, meal plans and access to campus facilities and events.
Each student has a host family in Orono that takes them in during weekends and holidays and attends sporting events and musical performance to show support, according to Chasse.
Chasse said the international exchange program is entirely self-funded. International student tuition covers the costs of the six-person trip to China, educational materials for the program, as well as substitute teachers to cover the classrooms of those traveling overseas.
A move from a large Chinese city to a small town in Maine can be a shock for a student who isn’t introduced to the change in the right way. Attending high school in the United States before jumping right into college can make the process more palatable, Chasse said.
For perspective, Orono’s sister school in Changsha has around 3,500 students, making it nearly 10 times the size of Orono High School. Some Chinese schools have as many as 10,000 students, according to Chasse.
“It’s pretty shocking for students in China that have 75 students in their math class, and then they come here and there are 15,” he said.
Chasse said Chinese students have been successful and plan on moving on to American schools ranging from UMaine and Bowdoin to Harvard and Yale.
The Orono High School group will return from China on March 31.