LEE, Maine — English teacher Johnny Liao comes from a suburb outside Guangzhou, China, that’s about the economic equivalent of Maine’s gold coast, he says.
A part of China’s third-largest city, the Clifford section of Guangzhou, which was once known as Canton, has a population of about 150,000. Its homes cost $90,000 to $6 million. People from more than 30 countries live in the area, which has been labeled one of China’s finest areas for its high quality of life, Liao said.
“Most of them are rich, just like these guys,” Liao said of the 74 Chinese students enrolled at the Lee Academy ESL summer program this month.
And many of them, Liao said, want to study in America.
“They can afford to study abroad. Every year in our school there’s about 20 to 30 students that might emigrate,” Liao added, naming several countries the students move to. “They just move to the other countries. They want to [pursue] study maybe in high school in the U.S.A. or in college.”
Lee Academy’s forays into that Asian market for summer and full-time students since 2007 are paying for a $3 million facelift and expansion of its campus and staff this summer, one of the largest academy projects since Headmaster Bruce Lindberg joined the high school seven years ago.
The expansion includes:
• The purchase of two houses, at 9 and 12 Winn Road, for close to $100,000 that will add about five acres to the center of the school’s campus off Route 6 when they are razed. Lee officials hope to close the deal within a few weeks, Lindberg said.
Exactly what the school will do with the land is unclear, but the possibilities are almost limitless, he said.
• The construction of a soccer field, tennis courts, walking trails, bleachers, concession stands and a well and septic system this summer on 14 of 38 acres off Winn Road donated to the academy from the H.C. Haynes family in 2010. Construction should be finished by the fall. Lindberg places the total value of the work, much of which is donated by the Haynes company, at about $2.1 million.
Residents are welcome to use the trails and fields when they are completed, Lindberg said.
• The purchase for $62,000 of the Pickering House, which the academy used to lease for faculty housing.
• The remodeling of the dining hall kitchen for about $15,000; the waterproofing and cleaning of the bricks to the Mallet and McDonald gymnasium for $12,000; and the renovation of the science lab, guidance department, library and several classrooms at the academy main classroom building for about $30,000.
The renovations to the main building, which was built in 1927, were paid for with $10,000 donations from three alumni families, Lindberg said.
• The hiring of the school’s first chief financial officer, Mary Morris of East Millinocket, and the school’s first Chinese interpreter, cook and medical practitioner, Renli Fang, a Beijing native. Both will start work over the next month or so.
Morris will assist Lindberg with the school’s financial planning and its transition to a year-round educational facility, as typified by the ESL summer program, which grew from 53 students last year. Fang will help address the needs of the school’s Asian students, Lindberg said.
The Asian student program has been a major part of the school’s economic growth, boosting Lee Academy’s dormitory student population from 20 to about 120 students since 2006, Lindberg said. A private school that contracts with the state to provide a high school education for students in and around Lee, Lee Academy had 270 students this year, including 115 foreign tuition students, of whom 70 are from the Far East, Lindberg said.
The foreign students come from around the world and are charged about $26,000 each, though 70 to 90 of the seven-day boarding students come from China or South Korea annually. The revenue they provide, and the revenue from the Lee Academy satellite schools in China and South Korea, have helped the academy prosper, Lindberg said.
“We’ve gone from a working budget of about $1 million a year to about $4.5 to $4.7 million a year over the last eight years,” Lindberg said. “We were struggling eight years ago, and now people see that we’re expanding and developing revenue at a time when most other educational institutions are not. That in turn helps bolster alumni confidence in the school’s future, which leads to the donations we have received.”
It isn’t part of the summer construction effort, but the school also will host a satellite clinic operated by Health Access Network of Lincoln. The clinic is due to start this winter and will host residents as well as students.
Lee First Selectman Hal Welch said he doesn’t see Lee Academy’s expansion having much of an impact on the town.
“The clinic will no doubt be a good thing for the town. Outside of that, I really don’t see that it affects the town that much either way,” Welch said. “Some of the businesses in town gain income from the students that are there, and of course that is a good thing for them. Whether it brings new business in or not, I guess that is up to somebody with a vision.”
The academy likely will grow more in the future, Lindberg said, but those plans are still in development.
Several other Maine high schools, public and private, are recruiting Asian students to offset population declines.