It must have been a slow news week in the People’s Republic of China. How else do you explain the story in the Global Times, China’s state-owned mega-newspaper, that amounted to a Communist-sanctioned smackdown of the tiny Maine community of Millinocket?

“Millinocket is isolated. The closest mall and movie theater is one hour away,” sniffed the piece that appeared Monday in the Global Times’ English edition under the byline of one Patrick Mattimore. “There were about 700 students at the high school in the 1970s. Today there are about 200 and the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot.”

Ouch.

And it doesn’t end there. The newspaper, whose 1.5 million circulation is almost double that of the New York Times, also calls the local Stearns High School “run-of-the-mill” with “school maps (that) date from the Cold War era.”

Why, you may wonder, would the Chinese care?

Because this fall, 60 high school kids from China will move into a hotel-turned-dormitory in Millinocket and spend a year attending Stearns at a cost, borne by their parents back home, of $24,000 per student.

It’s all the brainchild of Kenneth Smith, who took over as Millinocket’s superintendent of schools a year ago and last fall obtained his school board’s blessing to travel to China in search of prospective students.

The goal, Smith said in an interview Friday, is two-pronged: provide both an enrollment and financial boost to the struggling mill town’s high school and, equally important, expose the home-grown students at Stearns to a culture most would otherwise never experience.

“The Chinese government has been extremely encouraging — all the meetings I had with different people in the different provinces have been extremely positive,” said Smith.

Hence Smith was “kind of taken aback” when he heard about the op-ed article that appeared Monday in the Global Times under the headline “U.S. High Schools No Easy Path to Ivy League.”

Mattimore, identified in the story as an “adjunct instructor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program and a US public high school teacher,” bases his critique of Millinocket and its high school entirely on an article about the budding Stearns program that appeared last October in the New York Times.

In that piece, the Times did in fact note that Millinocket is an hour from the nearest mall or movie theater, has fallen on hard times since the local Katahdin Paper Co. LLC shut down in 2008, and yes, the local high school has a Cold War-era map still showing the Soviet Union.

(No surprise there, counters Smith: The map hangs in the classroom of a teacher who teaches about the Cold War.)

Mattimore’s advice to his Chinese audience: “Except for squandering money, there’s probably nothing wrong with the overseas experience.”

Enter Adam Minter, an American writer who lives in Shanghai and writes a blog called “Shanghai Scrap.”

Minter, in a Thursday posting headlined “Millinocket, Maine v. China’s Global Times (and its sketchiest editorialist),” spends considerable time attacking Mattimore’s credentials — turns out there might be a problem with all that “adjunct instructor” stuff.

But more significantly, Minter decided that since Mattimore didn’t bother to give the good people of Millinocket a chance to respond, he would.

Hence the lengthy emails from Superintendent Smith and Millinocket Town Manager Eugene Conlogue that Minter posted on “Shanghai Scrap,” in which both officials cry foul on Mattimore and the Global Times.

“The Global Times article totally misses the point about Millinocket’s interest in recruiting international students to our community and school department,” wrote Conlogue. “We are a small rural town in a small rural state. We do no try to compete with large-scale metropolitan areas like Shanghai, Beijing, New York or Los Angeles. Our streets are safe. We do not have ‘gangs’ and hooligans. And no, we do not have a mall.”

Nor, he noted, does Millinocket guarantee to prospective Chinese parents that a year at Stearns (the maximum allowed by federal law) will guarantee acceptance to Harvard or Yale or some other Ivy League bastion.

Rather, Conlogue promised, “Their time in Millinocket will help to enhance (students’) life experience and better prepare them for the next level.”

Smith’s lengthier rebuttal includes a detailed dissertation on standardized testing in Maine and the United States (Stearns’ scores for 2009-10 almost mirrored the statewide averages) as well as a spirited defense of Stearns as “an excellent high school” that boasts “one of the finest school buildings in the state.”

“I doubt if any informed person could ever say Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school,” Smith wrote. Before signing off, he added, “Getting your facts right is important!”

Stearns isn’t the only Maine high school interested in tapping into what many perceive as a burgeoning demand among Chinese parents willing to pay for a year abroad in a U.S. high school if it enhances their kids’ chances at getting into an American college or university. Other school systems looking to recruit tuition-paying Chinese students include Camden, Orono and Erskine Academy in (of all places) China.

But no other school is pursuing the idea on the same scale as Stearns, which is negotiating a deal with the Katahdin Inn (one of three hotels in Millinocket) whereby the entire facility will become a dormitory. While most of the $1.4 million paid by the Chinese parents will go toward their children’s room and board, Smith said, some $500,000 will be used to support 13 school positions generated by the program.

In short, Millinocket has put itself on the map at a time when some Chinese officials reportedly are worried about an increasing “brain drain” of their most elite students to the United States.

But Millinocket, promised Smith and Conlogue, will forge ahead.

According to Smith, the first acceptance letters soon will go out and he has no doubt that come September, all 60 slots will be filled.

And that, noted Conlogue, will be a win for everybody.

“If the only reason to do this was, in my mind, financial, I would not be in favor of it,” the town manager said in an interview Friday. “The cultural exchange alone is worth the effort.”

But what about the war of words with China’s state-sponsored newspaper?

“We surrender,” said Conlogue.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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