Of the 17 international students attending Orono High School this year, 12 are Chinese nationals. The school’s international student coordinator, Mackenzie Grobmyer, is confident that she will increase the number of Asian international students enrolled at the high school next year.
Those 17 students, Grobmyer says, probably make Orono High School the state’s leader among at least a half-dozen Maine public high schools recruiting or preparing to recruit tuition-paying international students to offset declining state aid and enrollments.
“The biggest reason public schools are recruiting is money,” Grobmyer said. “Maine is losing so much of its school population” — more than 10 percent of its school-age youth in the last six years — that schools need to find alternative resources, she says.
“Everybody is scrambling to get more revenue to offset the losses [in revenue and student population] we are taking,” Millinocket school Superintendent Kenneth Smith said. “We had a significant reduction in school funding this year, and next year will probably be the worst year the State of Maine ever faced.”
But Maine’s public high schools must overcome several disadvantages before they can even begin to offset their population and revenue losses and compete in the burgeoning international student marketplace, several leaders at Maine’s private schools say.
“The success of overseas recruitment is in building relationships. To build a relationship you have to spend time with people outside the country. They have to learn to trust you,” said Lee Academy Headmaster Bruce Lindberg, who is visiting the Republic of the Philippines on a three-month stay establishing a Lee Academy sister school near Subic Bay.
Securing overseas enrollments can take vast amounts of time that public school administrators simply don’t have, said Mel MacKay, Head of School at John Bapst Memorial High School of Bangor.
Bapst and Lee Academy are among Maine’s private-school leaders in overseas recruitments. Of Bapst’s 450 students, about 50 are Asian international students each paying $37,850 tuition. Lee Academy has 130 internationals out of 280 students enrolled paying $32,900 tuition. Out of its 465 students, Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft has 106 internationals paying $36,720 in tuition.
Bapst officials spent two years planning their Asian recruiting before starting their international student program in 2011, said MacKay, who took six trips overseas, each lasting three to 14 days, during that process.
That’s why public schools “need to develop a consortium. No one school can afford to send someone outside the country for the three to five months it takes to do this,” Lindberg said.
“Three to five school districts can get someone representing them so they [share] a solution to that problem,” he added.
The Maine Department of Education doesn’t track high school international recruiting efforts, spokesman David Connerty-Marin said, but Camden Hills Regional High School, Dexter High School, Hampden Academy, Kennebunk High School, Morse High School, Presque Isle High School, Stearns High School of Millinocket and Wiscasset High School are among the schools that have launched international programs or are considering it.
Most of Maine’s international student recruitment apparently occurs in China, but Japanese, Filipino, South Korean, Taiwanese, Thai and Vietnamese students also attend Maine high schools. Internationals also come from Europe, Russia and South America, but in much smaller numbers. Orono High’s students this year include five representing Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain and Thailand, Grobmyer said.
The Asian market, particularly China, is hottest right now, MacKay said.
“Everybody understands that the Chinese economic powerhouse is on the rise so connections with China are incredibly important,” said Baxter Academy for Technology and Science Executive Director John Jaques, whose Portland-based magnet school launched a cooperative learning agreement with a Chinese high school this week.
“We see that the future is going to be closely related to our relationship with China,” Jaques said. “Having students that are culturally aware and speak a bit of Chinese can only help.”
The example set by Stearns, which employs a private consultant to help it recruit students, illustrates how international student recruitment can help local schools combat their losses in students and aid.
The Millinocket high school, Smith said, is built for 800 students, but has about 540. Efforts to consolidate with neighboring schools have been unsuccessful, and the Katahdin region has lost about half its population over the last 10-15 years. The losses cause per-pupil costs to rise as officials struggle to maintain programs with fewer students, and projections indicate more population declines are likely.
But public school recruiting hasn’t yet come close to offsetting the losses. Wiscasset hoped to recruit three Chinese students this year, but plans fell through. Stearns has seven.
When recruiting internationals, “American public high schools are at a competitive disadvantage,” MacKay said.
Federal visa requirements are among the biggest barriers to public school recruitment of internationals, said Chris McGary, assistant head of school for boarding at Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft. Of his school’s 106 international students, about 75 percent are Asian, he said.
U.S. private, Australian and Canadian public schools can get four-year visas for international students, but federal law limits American public school visas to a year, MacKay said.
“Probably because of that, they have to be cautious. If you could imagine managing 40-60 new students a year coming for only one year, it could be unwieldy,” MacKay said. “That is why public school numbers will tend to stay smaller.”
Public schools must stretch beyond traditional boundaries for international students. A total lack of state or federal grants aiding recruitment efforts hinders that, McGary said.
Most Maine private schools have dormitories. Having local families host international students is an effective workaround, but public schools must build 24-7 support systems for Asian students, Lindberg said.
“They have to do that [support internationals] for 10 months. That is a huge adjustment for a public school to handle,” Lindberg said.
Those supports include effective English as a second language programs, regular weekend activities, cross-cultural educational offerings for students and host communities, and counselors that help internationals cope with a foreign culture, McGary said.
Teachers must know the differences between American and foreign teaching and schools to cope with international student educational needs, he said.
“To host international students, you basically become their family,” Lindberg said.
“You want to be sure that you are giving everyone the best possible experience you can and not having [language barriers] be a distraction. It requires more attention and resources,” said Laurie Hyndman, director of admission at North Yarmouth Academy, a private school for grades 5-12 which has hosted 10-15 Asian students since 2008 at $39,500 tuition.
Public schools need a heavy load of advance placement classes to attract Asian students. “We assume that a student coming from Asia will be ahead of a typical American student,” MacKay said.
“The Asian population demands rigorous academics,” Lindberg said. “Small high schools may not be able to offer four years of languages to produce fluency. They may not be able to offer 10 AP classes or three meals a day. That is a huge thing.”
Almost all Asian students who go to high school in America plan to attend North American colleges or universities, MacKay said. Coming to America removes them from the Asian collegiate track. Advanced placement programs are critical to keeping Asians engaged with the classes.
Bapst and North Yarmouth offer 17 AP classes; Lee Academy, 14. Foxcroft Academy has 10 on-campus courses, plus 11 additional AP offerings through external resources such as online programs.
Orono High offers eight AP programs, equivalency tests for six more, and college courses through the University of Maine in Orono, Grobmyer said.
Stearns lists 17 AP courses online, beginner and intermediate Spanish and French and on-campus AP Calculus.
Asian students dislike Internet AP classes. They want “face-to-face interaction with a teacher and American students,” Lindberg said.
“That depends on the kids,” Smith said in response. “Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to have Internet classes if you only have one kid taking them.”
Like the Lee Academy officials with whom they work closely, Millinocket school leaders have found an effective way to draw revenue from the international student market, Smith said. They are franchising their curricula and forming sister schools overseas. Millinocket has one in China, while Lee Academy has two, in South Korea and the Philippines.
Millinocket will make $44,000 in franchise fees this year, or $1,000 per Chinese student enrolled in the high school they have established in China. The program should draw $100,000 in revenue next year and $300,000 in 2015, Smith said.
“Some of those Chinese kids will come here,” Smith said. “It takes time, but one of the positive sides to it is that there is a cultural exchange. Some of our kids have Skype conversations with kids in their program over there.”
Lindberg has used international tuition funds to invest $3 million in Lee Academy campus upgrades since his program began in 2008.
Orono’s self-supporting program, which is geared more for its cultural than economic benefits, will eventually contribute to the school’s general fund. Bapst’s international student population will likely remain at 10-15 percent of all Bapst students over the next several years, but Lee Academy’s will hit the 50 percent mark and perhaps exceed it by 2018.
“Scores of public schools nationwide are enrolling Chinese students,” MacKay said. “The encouraging thing is that high school and college education in America is a hot commodity around the world.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that 10 Chinese and two South Korean students attend Orono High School. Twelve Chinese students attend the school.