MILLINOCKET, Maine — School leaders are working to build sister-school relations with three Chinese high schools, including one that would offer dual American-Chinese diplomas as a Chinese version of Stearns High School, Superintendent Kenneth Smith said Monday.
“The whole idea is that we want to have as many students from all avenues that we can,” Smith said. “We are not going to put all of our eggs in one basket, and culturally, we will have greater experiences for our kids.”
Millinocket School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins described efforts to recruit Chinese students as “very iffy.”
School officials originally planned to recruit as many as 60 Chinese students to Stearns in September, but a recruiting failure by an agent in China reduced that number to six or seven, then three.
School leaders have realized that the best way to recruit Chinese students in stable numbers is to have closer ties with Chinese educational institutions, and that will take time, Smith said.
“We want to find as many ways to ensure a continuous flow. Whether you have 20 or 30 kids or 60 kids, it is not a one-time deal,” Smith said. “They have to trust us and we have to trust them.”
The Stearns international student program, which school leaders first discussed about 1½ years ago, is earning the school system $24,000 in tuition per student.
It is a much-needed revenue stream that eventually could grow to offset declining state and federal aid, a decline in student population and an enormous tax revenue loss caused by a revaluation of the Katahdin Avenue paper mill, Smith and Hopkins have said.
Leaders from the Haining Vocational School in Haining, which is in southern China, have offered to come to Millinocket next spring to study the school and town as a first step toward normalizing relations, Smith said.
Millinocket students would get from the program “the same advantages we have now,” Hopkins said. “Our students get a chance to develop an international flavor. The three students we have now are flourishing. They are doing very well.”
Millinocket and Haining school leaders have signed an agreement to try to build a student exchange program, Smith said.
School officials also are working to build the same sort of exchange with Yueyuang Foreign Languages School, which is in southern China, while the Stearns satellite school would be at northern China’s Yue Yang School, Smith said.
Smith also wants to offer a multiweek summer program for Chinese students next year at which the students would learn English and American culture.
Smith happily admits that his plan is a virtual copy of that followed by Lee Academy as it pioneered large-scale international student programs with China and other Asian countries starting in 2007. Lee has several satellite schools and exchange agreements in China and South Korea.
Smith, an admirer of the Lee program, said he and Lee Academy Headmaster Bruce Lindberg are working together because Lee leaders feel that Stearns’ Chinese students might seek to enroll at the academy once they finish at Stearns.
Under federal law, Chinese students can enroll at public schools for only a year at a time, but they can attend schools such as Lee, a private high school contracted to take students from nearby public schools, for several years.
Several Maine high school systems and the University of Maine have launched international student programs featuring Chinese high schoolers. One of the largest programs is Lee Academy’s, which draws almost 100 international students annually. Last summer it had its first three-week summer program aimed at recruiting Chinese students for Lee and other Maine high schools or colleges.
School committee members have agreed informally to pursue the new China initiatives.
“It’s all in the very early stages,” Hopkins said Monday. “It is very experimental at this point.”