Ken Smith has sailed through fog and piloted planes at night. He even coached the Lee Academy ski team to the 1967 state championship when he’d never been on skis before.

So the Millinocket school superintendent is undaunted by the challenge of going to China and recruiting tuition-paying students to attend Stearns High School. His goal is to preserve a school district in a remote Maine mill town that’s struggling to survive.

“We’re going to do it,” Smith said assuredly. “We try to educate our kids to be world-wise. What better way to do that than to bring students from other countries here?”

Smith is one of four school administrators, and the only one representing a Maine public school district, who are heading to China on Friday on a nine-day recruiting mission and cultural tour organized by Fox Intercultural Consulting Services of Portland.

Smith is the first public school chief in Maine to launch a major effort to recruit foreign students. He’ll be traveling with Mike McQuarrie, headmaster at Erskine Academy in South China; Mel MacKay, head of school at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor; and Alison Price, director of admissions at The Derryfield School in Manchester, N.H.

The four hope to take advantage of the financial and cultural benefits represented by the burgeoning number of Chinese youths who want to study in the United States.

“Ninety percent of Chinese high school students want to study overseas,” said Suzanne Fox, a China expert who is leading the recruiting mission. “About 10 million young people take China’s college entrance exam each year and only 1 million pass it.”

As a result, attending a college or university in China is little more than a dream for a lot of Chinese youths, and many see attending a U.S. high school as a step toward getting into a U.S. college or university, Fox said.

Several independent schools in Maine have already tapped this growing interest from abroad, bringing dozens of foreign students to the Pine Tree State, including Lee Academy near Lincoln, Fryeburg Academy on the western border with New Hampshire, Thornton Academy in Saco and Washington Academy in East Machias.

Smith’s effort in Millinocket follows that of Portland Superintendent Jim Morse, who started a similar program at Messalonskee High School in Oakland before switching jobs last year. Two Chinese students paid to attend that public high school in 2008. Morse said he plans to start a similar effort in Portland high schools and take advantage of all the educational and cultural amenities of Maine’s largest city.

McQuarrie’s goals for Erskine Academy are more immediate. He hopes to bring five to seven Chinese students to the academy in September. The academy draws 99 percent of its 693 students from several communities near South China that send kids there because they don’t have public high schools.

The academy’s enrollment dropped by about 60 students this year, largely because the eighth-grade population in the region is smaller and is expected to remain that way for several years, McQuarrie said.

The Chinese students would pay $30,000 a year and stay with host families because the academy doesn’t have dorms. McQuarrie has already secured federal permission so the academy can issue student visas, upgraded its website to attract foreign interest and visited other independent schools in Maine that already have foreign students.

“For us, it’s not a bread and butter issue as much as it’s a desire to increase the cultural diversity of the school,” McQuarrie said. “We want to maintain the mission of our school to our local communities, but we would be open to students from countries other than China as long as the number stayed around five to seven each year.”

While in China, McQuarrie and the other school administrators will tour the major cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Fuzhou. They will visit several Chinese schools, learn about Chinese culture and current events, and meet with Chinese teachers, students, parents and Mainers living in China, Fox said.

“This is a get-your-feet-wet venture,” Fox said. “My hope is that they get an understanding of what’s going on in China and why a student might want to come here.”

For Chinese students from large schools in crowded cities, Maine schools are attractive for a variety of reasons, Fox said. They’re generally smaller, in safer communities, offer a wide variety of natural beauty and outdoor activities and, above all, provide an opportunity to practice writing and speaking in English.

Nestled in the northern Maine woods, in the shadow of Mount Katahdin, Stearns High School in Millinocket fills the bill and needs the students, according to Ken Smith.

With the closing and slowing of local paper mills and other job losses, the town’s population has fallen from a high of 7,742 in 1970 to about 5,000 today. As a result, the number of high school students has dropped from 700 to 200, and the school district’s overall enrollment is down about 50 percent to 550 students.

Smith sees bringing Chinese students to Stearns as a way to avoid cutting educational programs, laying off staff and closing schools.

“Revenue is a big problem for all Maine school systems,” Smith said. “You can’t just cry in your beer about it. You have to look for new revenue sources.”

Smith and other Millinocket officials have been working on a recruitment plan for months. They’d like to welcome as many as 200 Chinese students in September, but Fox and others are advising them that 15 to 20 students is a more reasonable number for the first year. The students would pay close to $30,000 a year and stay with local host families. Smith has already scoped out sites for future dorms.

Students, teachers and the wider community are excited about the prospect of bringing Chinese students to town, Fox said. The high school librarian created a display that features Chinese books, clothing, instruments and other items.

The district is reviewing high school programs to promote the best and improve the rest. A new nature-based environmental science program is expected to feature the extraordinary woodland resources of nearby Baxter State Park.

“We need to strengthen all of our programs,” Smith said. “But the way I see it, we can’t lose. If you shoot for the moon and you miss, you’re going to hit the stars.”


Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]