SEARSPORT, Maine — In a previous century, the seafaring residents of Searsport looked to the Far East for trade and adventure.
In this one, they’re looking to that part of the world to help save their high school. Regional School Unit 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter said this week that Brian Campbell, principal of Searsport District High School, will be heading to China for a week in November to visit some schools that have begun teaching the Maine school’s curriculum.
If things progress well, by next fall five to seven Chinese students should come to Searsport to attend the high school by paying tuition of between $30,000 and $35,000 each.
“Basically, this is to create revenue for the school and to expand the cultural opportunities [for American students],” Carpenter said Thursday.
He said that the project has been in the works for about a year, and that the RSU 20 board of directors approved a $20,000 expenditure for Campbell’s trip and to pay for a consulting firm that is helping the Maine school district make necessary connections in China. The tuition students will only attend Searsport District High School, not Belfast Area High School, the other high school in the consolidated district. They will stay with host families in the community, who will receive a portion of the tuition bill in exchange for room and board.
In the last year, RSU 20 has struggled with problems that include having a proposed budget for the current year turned down by voters — twice — and efforts from six of the eight communities in the district to withdraw from it. Currently, the communities of Belfast, Belmont, Searsmont and Northport have once more approved pursuing withdrawal from the school district. The other district communities are Searsport, Stockton Springs and Swanville.
Earlier this week, voters finally approved a $33.38 million budget that cut a science teacher and a music teacher at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, a part-time French teacher at Belfast Area High School, the full-time athletic director, two support staff members and 1.5 library education technician positions.
The budget also eliminated all the substitute custodians and $100,000 for supplies, and leaves the district with just $100,000 to pay for any contingencies.
“Which is ridiculous,” Carpenter said. “If a boiler goes, we’re about dead in the water. We hope that nothing happens, and luckily, the buildings are in good condition.”
Officials hope that the China exchange program may be a bright spot in a dark era for education. Other public schools in Maine, including Orono High School, Camden Hills Regional High School, Stearns High School of Millinocket, Morse High School in Bath, Dexter High School, Hampden Academy, Kennebunk High School and Wiscasset High School have either launched international programs or are considering doing so, according to the Maine Department of Education.
Mackenzie Grobmyer, international student coordinator at Orono High School, in February told the BDN that Maine has lost more than 10 percent of its school-age youths in the last six years and schools are scrambling to find alternative resources.
“The biggest reason public schools are recruiting is money,” she said at the time.
Her high school at that time had 12 Chinese national students, one of the largest populations among the state’s public high schools. Private schools, on the other hand, have far more overseas students on their rosters, in part because they can spend more time and resources securing international enrollment. Lee Academy last year had 130 international students out of a 280-person student body, and Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft had 106 international students out of a 465-person total enrollment.
Carpenter said that Maine educators will need to focus on making sure the Chinese students get what they need, including English immersion and American history courses. By spending two years studying the Searsport curriculum in China and one year in Searsport, the students will get a diploma from the Maine high school, if they meet the learning standards, he said.
When asked if the program might expand, Carpenter said that he’s not sure yet.
“We’re going to see how this goes. We’re going to take baby steps,” he said.