SEARSPORT, Maine — The hallways of Searsport District High School normally would be sleepy and dark on a summertime weekend, but on Saturday the gymnasium was alive with the sounds of laughter and shouts — in Chinese.
Last week, 28 middle school students from a province near the city of Shanghai came to the small midcoast community with three adult translators and educators. Officials from Haining No. 1 Middle School, Searsport District High School and Searsport District Middle School said they hope the five-day-long visit will mark the beginning of a long relationship between the schools.
In November, Searsport Principal Brian Campbell went to China to visit schools and recruit students to come to Maine and pay tuition to attend his financially-strapped high school.
“This is to create revenue for the school and to expand the cultural opportunities,” Regional School Unit 20 Superintendent Brian Carpenter told the BDN last September.
Fast forward nearly a year, and Chinese students were staying with American host families and visiting such places as the University of Maine in Orono, the Owls Head Transportation Museum and Perry’s Nut House in Belfast.
On Saturday afternoon, the American and Chinese students disembarked from two school buses at the Searsport school’s campus and milled around outside in noisy groups while they posed for some photographs and then learned what was next on their itinerary. Then they went inside and separated into groups, with Chinese students teaching the American students a game they played.
In one classroom, the game involved moving marbles from cup to cup using chopsticks. The Chinese students deftly gripped the wooden sticks and easily moved the marbles.
The American students? Well, that was a different story.
Lilah Chaar, 16, of Stockton Springs sat between two Chinese teenagers who were staying at her house. They smiled at her efforts and tried to give her pointers, despite a pretty big language gulf. One of the girls, a 14-year-old who said her American name was Chris, indicated that she was enjoying her visit to Maine.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
Ruth Fitzpatrick, dean of students at the Searsport schools, which share a campus and administration, said that Searsport has four sister schools in China.
Some high school students also had been expected to come to Maine this summer, but their visas didn’t arrive in time, she said. On Friday, officials from the two schools signed an official agreement to promote educational exchange, and the next step is likely to be a trip to China next spring for Searsport students and teachers.
Then, Fitzpatrick hopes there will be a student exchange.
“The bigger picture is the global piece, really getting our young people to understand each other,” she said.
The financial piece won’t hurt, either, Carpenter said last year, adding that Chinese students coming to Maine likely would pay at least $30,000 each in tuition. That money would be a boon to a high school that has had years of declining enrollment and a school district with a maxed-out budget.
Other public high schools in Maine that now have a China exchange program include Orono High School, Camden Hills Regional High School, Stearns High School in Millinocket, Hampden Academy and Dexter High School.
Feng Shuiqing, the Chinese principal visiting Searsport, said through a translator that he hopes for a solid relationship with the Maine school.
“We would like a long-lasting visit between these two schools,” he said.