PORTLAND — The most diverse school district in the state would become even more so, if Superintendent James C. Morse gets his way.

Morse said the district has nearly completed an application to the Department of Homeland Security that would allow tuition-paying foreign students to attend city schools.

After Homeland Security establishes the maximum tuition the district can charge for each student, Morse said, applications will be submitted for Portland, Deering and Casco Bay high schools.

The program would be different from a foreign exchange program, Morse said, where students are swapped on a quid-pro-quo basis.

Instead, he said foreign students would be charged a tuition of at least $8,500, the average high school cost per student in the state. But the district could charge $12,000 or more, which could inject some much-needed revenue into the school budget.

“It’s not so much a windfall as it is the opportunity to bring in income that isn’t being generated by taxpayers,” he said. “It’s a bit of an entrepreneurial business model.

Sterns High School in Millinocket is currently recruiting Chinese students for a similar program, according to The New York Times.

Based on his experiences in Messalonskee, where he established a similar program, Morse said it will likely take about six months for Homeland Security to process the application. If approved, foreign students could start coming to the city within a year and a half, he said.

Morse said he would initially concentrate recruitment efforts in China, a place he has spent time and where he knows there is “an absolute desire” to send children to American schools.

Sending students to schools in the United States gives those students a better shot at being accepted to an American university, Morse said. 

Morse said Messalonskee only received two Chinese students during the first year of the program. Since he left for Portland, the program has been discontinued, he said. 

“There is no city in the state of Maine that has more experience accepting youngsters from away,” the school chief said of Portland.

Morse said tuition-paying students are different from immigrant children who come to Portland from war-torn lands with limited educational backgrounds.

“The difference here is these youngsters have been speaking English and learning English from their elementary grades,” he said, “so it’s not going to be a drain on resources. It’s going to be an asset.”

The process for establishing a program in Portland, however, is only in its infant stages. 

“If anyone wants to know where we are in the process on a scale of 1 to 10, we’re at a one stage right now,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Getting Homeland Security clearance is the only the first step. The district would also have to figure out room and board options for the students.

While dorms are one option, Morse said he believes that many foreign families would rather place their children in homes.

“It’s a pretty exciting idea,” he said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected].

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