October 18, 2010

School leaders look to recruit China students

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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."

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