AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s new A-through-F school grading system will likely make it harder for Maine public schools to enroll international students, educational recruiters say.
Many Maine schools, especially in the northern part of the state, have been recruiting students from Asia to offset dropping enrollments.
“In Asia, parents are always looking at rankings,” said Jay Brennan, CEO of Global Study Connections in Dover-Foxcroft, which works with schools to attract international students. “One of the first things that Chinese parents do is they want to know the rankings of schools. Word is getting out. I know of Chinese students who have already called their parents with reports. And it’s not just China. Korea, Japan, all of those countries are very test-driven.”
In the past, those same students and their families have relied on rankings compiled by the media, such as the magazine U.S. News and World Report. News reports about Maine’s new school letter grading system offer Asian parents another measure, but it’s not one that’s likely to help Maine schools lure exchange students.
Suzanne Fox, owner of Fox Intercultural Consulting in Portland, works with schools all over New England to attract international students, particularly those from China. She estimates that at least 1,000 Chinese students are studying in Maine’s public and private schools.
“I think this grading system that has come out will just be detrimental for some of the great schools in Maine that didn’t get an A,” said Fox. “Not every kid in China is going to go to Harvard. Some kids just want fresh air and to be out of that oppressive education system. They want to come here and these rankings could just be really harmful. I’m really hoping this doesn’t get into the Chinese press.”
One of Maine’s more aggressive schools in terms of recruiting Asian students is Lee Academy. That school received an F in LePage’s grading system, which Headmaster Bruce Lindberg contests because the grade reflects only the academy’s public school students, not the international and boarding students who make up about half of the student body.
Lindberg told the Bangor Daily News earlier this week in an online interview from the Philippines that Lee currently has about 130 international students who each pays $32,900 in tuition. He and others have been working in recent years to bring more international students to Maine for many reasons, not the least of which is to increase revenues for schools without placing more burden on in-state taxpayers.
Stearns High School in Millinocket will earn about $100,000 in revenue this year from its seven Asian students and franchising agreements with overseas organizations. Stearns also initially received an F in the grading system, before being dropped from the ratings.
There are 13 international students studying at Orono High School this year. Principal James Chasse said he saw the school’s C grade as a liability to some extent — the school was penalized one letter grade because only 92 percent of its 76 juniors took the SAT, which equates to about six students missing the test — but doesn’t see it as a game-changer. He said many international students focus on how many AP, or advanced-placement, classes a school offers, how many students continue their educations after high school and other factors.
“Our track record is strong,” said Chasse. “As far as the report card thing, if that’s what they’re basing their research on, I don’t know if it would give them the full picture. I think we have to present to them, here’s our AP success story. Here’s our small-school success story.”
The school’s international student coordinator, Mckenzie Grobmyer, agreed. “Students going back and talking about their experiences is going to trump the grade that we may receive,” she said.
Chinese students at Orono high school also spoke of the positive experiences they’ve had in Maine. Micheal Gao said that improving his English skills in America is much better than learning English in China. He also praised the teaching style here. “The relationship between teacher and student is just like good friends,” he said.
Mindy Yi called teachers “very patient” and willing to help.
Brennan, who in addition to his consultant role is the former assistant headmaster at Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, agreed that there is an opening for Maine schools to sell themselves on more than just a letter grade. Relatively small class sizes and an emphasis on writing and critical thinking are big attractions, but competition is fierce, especially in New England, which is known for its quality public schools.
“They want their kids attending a top 50 school, if not a top 10 school,” said Brennan, who said Maine’s school grading system might not affect international student enrollment numbers as much as it might change the caliber of students coming to Maine schools.
Fox, who has spent nearly three decades traveling to China, including consulting for schools for the past 10 years, said Maine has potent offerings that have nothing to do with how good its schools are. She said China’s economic boom in recent years has given more Chinese families the ability to send their children abroad to shield them from some of the worst things about the most populous country in the world.
“They’re concerned about product safety, corruption and air quality,” said Fox. “They’re interested in the critical thinking skills and the writing and sitting in classes of 20 kids. Most high schools in China are 5,000 students and up.”
Chasse, at Orono High School, said he hopes students from around the world continue to come to Maine because it’s possible that native students have as much to gain from it as the international ones.
“You can open up a social studies book and learn about a particular country or you can meet people from that country live in person,” he said. “It brings an international flavor to our school when our students become lifelong friends with someone from an Asian or Scandinavian country, and that lasts long beyond their high school days. They become more globally connected.”