BRUNSWICK, Maine — The Brunswick School Board is sending an administrator to China next month, at a cost of nearly $5,000, to recruit students and build a relationship with a new sister school.
The board approved the 10-day trip by Assistant Superintendent of Schools Greg Bartlett in a 7-2 vote Sept. 9, after Portland-based Fox Intercultural Consulting informed the panel of the opportunity in late August.
The board has been working with the consulting firm over the last year to develop a student exchange program. Fox previously worked with schools in Falmouth, Orono, Saco and Kennebunk to develop similar programs.
While the trip could result in a handful of Chinese students attending Brunswick High School, results are not guaranteed.
Bartlett, who will visit schools in Shanghai and the Zhejiang province, said the primary purpose of the trip is to visit a current sister school, Jinhua No. 1 High School, and seek out other potential sister schools in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Ningbo.
“It’s just that you agree to take steps to try to communicate with each other,” Bartlett said on Monday. “There are no guarantees or liability on either side … . It’s a goodwill ambassadorial agreement with each other.”
The assistant superintendent will be joined by other school chiefs from public and private schools in New England, including Searsport High School and an academy in Vermont.
The visit to Jinhua, which sent 17 students to Brunswick High School for a small program in July, could lead to students attending the high school as early as next school year, video conferences between classrooms, faculty exchanges and the development of another summer program, Bartlett said.
He said the program could also potentially allow the high school to send its own students to China in the future.
Bartlett said the tuition for a single student to attend Brunswick High School next year would be $30,000, which would more than cover the cost of the trip and an additional $5,000 consultation fee the School Board paid to sign the sister school agreement.
The $30,000 tuition — more than three times the amount charged Maine students who don’t live in Brunswick — was suggested by Fox, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said. The consultant will receive 10 percent of every tuition as part of the agreement.
But student recruitment efforts and related activities remain uncertain for now, Bartlett said, because the school department is awaiting approval of a Homeland Security application required to allow intake of international students.
What is more certain, however, is the continuation of a summer program for Chinese students that was piloted in July, and international video conferences between classrooms, Bartlett said.
Besides the potential economic benefits of the existing sister-school agreement, the assistant superintendent emphasized the cultural value of such a program.
“The world is getting smaller through technology and travel,” Bartlett said, “so we’re trying to develop a relationship that will allow for a better understanding of each other’s educational systems and culture.”
Suzanne Fox, president of Fox Intercultural Consulting, said public schools are at a disadvantage for recruiting international students because U.S. law prevents the foreign students from attending for more than one year.
In addition, she said, Chinese families often prefer to send their children to private schools because they have no attendance limit and are considered more competitive.
“The way it is now makes it a lot harder for public schools,” Fox said.
That’s why Bartlett will have to make a strong case for Brunswick if he hopes to interest any potential exchange students, Fox said. The consultant said part of her job is to help schools fine-tune their message, which often includes emphasizing a school’s academic achievements along with a town’s local features.
Like Bartlett, Fox emphasized the cultural benefits of sister-school agreements with China, and expressed concerns that news stories often focus too much on the student recruitment aspect.
“So few of the articles don’t talk about global competency and cultural literacy,” she said, noting that a New England student delegation, which could eventually include students from Brunswick, is sent to China every April.
Janet Connors, one of the two School Board members who opposed the trip, said she voted against it because the proposal came to the board on short notice and wasn’t part of the school department budget.
“It was very quick and we hadn’t planned it,” Connors said. “We didn’t have the money set aside. I just question whether that’s an advisable thing under the situations and how my taxpayers would see it.”
Perzanoski said the trip expense would likely come out of the School Board’s $7,200 special projects budget.
Fox said she typically sends the announcement about her company’s annual fall trip in August. She also said the confusion in Brunswick might have happened because the school department is new to the program.
Despite the board’s last-minute maneuver to approve the trip, board Chairman Jim Grant said it was an easy decision for him to support.
“I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is to show how good we are competing against private schools and charter schools,” Grant said. “I hope to show that we are an educational leader throughout the world. … It’s a price Brunswick should be willing to pay for this kind of cultural exchange and educational experience.”