MILLINOCKET, Maine — Stearns High School’s Chinese tuition program began with a trickle of three total students in its inaugural class last year.
And although they’re not expecting a flood this fall, Millinocket school officials are expecting to see a wave perhaps more than triple the size of last year’s enrollment.
“We’re not sure how many total students we’ll have, but we have five right now and I think we could see a much higher number than that,” said Ken Smith, Millinocket’s superintendent of schools.
School officials’ optimism stems from a class of 26 Chinese students and three teachers who enrolled and took part in a new, weeklong intensive English and environmental sciences summer program at Stearns High School.
“The idea is to help them get settled in, show them the area, immerse them in the school system, and then, hopefully, they would come back as early as [the fall of 2013], not this fall,” said Smith, who said current high school students helped out with the program. “They had a chance to see the stars, which a lot of them had never seen before because smog is so bad where they live. A game warden came in and did a presentation.”
Students’ afternoons were jammed with outdoor activity such as hiking nearby blueberry ledges, exploring the Ripogenus Dam and kayaking Togue Pond.
If the students’ reactions when leaving Millinocket is any indication, they’re likely to return.
“The feedback couldn’t have been better from the students, and the homestay families, and the teachers,” Smith said. “The students were crying when they left. They didn’t want to leave.”
Smith said the state sets the tuition rate — based on class time, teacher salaries and other factors — for students attending Stearns from outside the communities the school system serves. Last year, that rate was $13,000 per student for the year. Those requiring room and board paid another $11,000.
“It’s a significant revenue stream for our school system and the member communities, and once you get things flowing, it can really make a difference,” said Smith, who explained that foreign students are usually housed via a “homestay” arrangement with host families in the Millinocket area.
The Chinese students, ages 15-17, will arrive this fall and start classes in September.
These next two months will be a whirlwind of activity. Smith will be traveling to China later this month to help set up a Millinocket sister school in China as part of the dual diploma program established in cooperation with U.S. State Department and Chinese national and school officials.
“We’ve had this in the works for a little over a year,” Smith said. “The class sizes for this school, which will start classes this fall, will be capped at 100.”
There is currently no cap on enrollment for Chinese students at Stearns.
Presque Isle High School, with assistance from University of Maine at Presque Isle, also is starting up a cooperative program with schools in China, Smith said.
“We had students last year from three different communities and provinces in China, so it was a slow start, but I think everything with this program has gone far better than I would have anticipated,” said Smith. “You would have expected some glitches, but it’s been quite successful.”