Stearns High School in Millinocket made national headlines six years ago for how it responded to declining enrollment and a shrinking budget — it decided to bring in students from other countries through the F-1 visa program to fill in the gaps.
Since then, other schools have followed Millinocket’s lead, but the strategy hasn’t produced the financial windfall that some might have expected.
Gian Mendez grew up in Mexico, where he says he was always stuck studying math and English. But he says he had different plans when he arrived at Farmington’s Mt. Blue High School last August.
“I love art and theater,” he says. “I love math, but I don’t have to take math here. I have more time to do other stuff that I like more.”
Mendez came to Mt. Blue as part of the school’s new international student program. Coordinator Lisa Dalrymple says the idea bloomed after she saw repeated cuts to the district’s foreign language department, particularly at the elementary level.
The school had always brought in foreign exchange students. But then Dalrymple says she read about a program in Millinocket where international students paid tuition to attend.
“We were hosting international students,” she says. “So I was thinking maybe it was time to start bringing in tuition-paying students.”
Private schools have long brought in international students. But it’s only in the past few years that more public schools — from Farmington to Boothbay and Orono — have followed suit.
According to the Maine Department of Education, more than 250 international students are now paying tuition to attend school in Maine.
At Mt. Blue, Dalrymple received school board support for her program in 2014, with the hope that the tuition money could revive some of the district’s foreign language programs as well as bring cultural awareness to the mostly white school district.
Mendez says he has worked to bridge those cultural barriers. He says when he first entered Mt. Blue, he heard stereotypes from fellow students that his home country of Mexico must be full of crime and drugs. But he’s worked to educate his peers.
“I want to change how people see Mexico and show there are really cool things in our country too,” he says.
But Dalrymple has found that because of federal immigration policy, recruiting is a lot harder for a public school than it is for a private academy. Under federal statutes, a private school can offer an F-1 visa that brings a student to America for four years, but public schools can only offer a one-year J-1 visa.
“If a student wants to be at a school for four years, I can’t compete with that,” she says.
And that’s not the only issue. Wade Merritt, coordinator for StudyMaine, a government organization that supports these efforts, says public schools also need to get local school board approval, which isn’t easy.
“You’re going to the superintendent or the school committee and you’re saying, ‘We want to put money towards recruitment.’ But you’re often taking it away from a core program,” he says. “And that is not an easy sell.”
Add up those disadvantages, and Mt. Blue has yet to see the financial benefits that it was hoping for three years ago. And that could spell its end.
The program is currently up for renewal by the district’s board of directors. At a recent meeting, Director Cherieann Harrison told Dalrymple that she thinks the idea of the program is a good one. But without anything to show financially, she can’t support spending any more money that could go elsewhere.
“That’s a marching band,” Harrison says. “We have an art program that needs to be updated. We have a lot of things we need to be investing in outside of the program.”
But despite these challenges, some public schools have found a way to not only sustain an international program, but see it grow as well.
Inside Dexter Regional High School, about a half-dozen students from China and Korea scribble sentences on Post-it notes that describe their experiences in America and their home country. Teacher Chelsie Crane asks them to compare and contrast what they see.
“Do we all get around together at a table and eat with our families? Do we all eat special meals for holidays or festivals?” she says.
While these seniors arrived in Dexter this year, almost all of them have been taking the school’s classes since 10th grade. It’s all through a partnership that Dexter has created with a school in Suzhou, China. Students take classes from Dexter’s curriculum for two years in Suzhou. Then, for their senior year, they come to Maine and get their Dexter diploma.
Jay Brennan helped to create the partnership through Global Studies Connections, his international student agency. He says the programs works for two reasons. It identifies a niche of students who want to come to the United States but who may not have the money to pay private school tuition, which can often total hundreds of thousands of dollars. And the program is supported by the Chinese government, as it keeps students in China through most of high school instead of seeing them leave for American schools earlier.
“And for a public school to have this kind of relationship, it creates a funnel of students coming year after year,” Brennan says.
That funnel is still somewhat small — only about six students this year. But school officials in Dexter expect it to grow to almost 20 by next year. Since the program brings in about $9,000 in revenue from each student, superintendent Kevin Jordan says it could save jobs in most rural districts.
“If you’re in a little more of an area where declining enrollment is becoming more severe, rather than adding two teachers, it may help you keep two teachers you already have,” he says.
The school acknowledges there are still struggles. Most notably, Jordan says it’s hard to find enough host families to take care of these international students.
Nonetheless, Jay Brennan says these kinds of partnerships could help other schools, as well. The key, he says, is a multi-year vision that places more importance on students and cultural exposure than on budgets.
Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is funded by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.