2011-11-29 / Front Page

RSU 1 ponders reaching overseas

BY BETH BROGAN Times Record Staff


As soon as next fall, Morse High School could host students from Asia — and add more than $10,000 in tuition for each student to the school district’s coffers.

On Monday, Superintendent Patrick Manuel told the Regional School Unit 1 board of directors that he and Assistant Superintendent Wayne Dorr have explored applying to participate in the Student and Exchange Visitor Program ( SEVP). The school board will consider whether to authorize them to seek federal approval to add Morse to the list of Maine high schools participating in the SEVP.

Wiscasset High School was approved for the program in September, and Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham has participated since 2003, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website. SAD 75 Superintendent Brad Smith said today that one foreign student pays tuition this year to attend Mt. Ararat as part of what he described as a “small program.”

Morse already offers a J-1 visa to international students, which allows them to attend school here and then return to graduate from their home school. That program is entirely coordinated through an agency, and the district does not charge tuition, Manuel said.

But a new F-1 visa program would allow students to attend public high schools for a year and pay tuition.

“Schools can determine what the tuition is,” he said. “For example, if we were to do $17,500, (including) $4,000 to $5,000 for a host family and $500 for incidentals.”

Manuel said that while the primary benefit for the district would be to provide a cultural experience for students and staff, the tuition would help meet expenses as revenues from state and federal subsidies decline.

Interest in the program is not due to declining enrollments at the high school — currently 651, according to a Nov. 14 report to the board from Principal Peter Kahl.

In fact, Manuel said Morse probably couldn’t accommodate dozens of foreign students, but would look for “a handful.”

But with declining education revenues, he said, tuition paid by the students would help.

Manuel said the Maine Department of Education sets the tuition rate for Maine’s high schools, but districts can essentially set their own price for foreign students who participate in such a program.

Manuel said the program would likely focus on students from Asia — as have other schools in Maine, with varying degrees of success.

Manuel said he and Dorr have spoken with officials from Camden, Wiscasset and Kennebunk high schools, as well as Thornton Academy and Lee Academy.

Those schools offer a variety of programs to foreign students, including a summer program in Camden.

Another school, Stearns High School in Millinocket — which earlier this year gained media attention for its international program — “didn’t have a great experience,” Manuel said. “ I think they were planning for something much bigger and it didn’t materialize.”

Stearns officials announced in March that the school would recruit as many as 60 students from China to attend the high school, but unfulfilled promises by a recruiter resulted in only three students enrolling this year, The Bangor Daily News reported.

The team to be formed by RSU 1, however, will “think big but start small,” Manuel said Monday.

Students from other countries are interested in attending a high school in the United States for a number of reasons, including increased proficiency in the English language, a focus on “ creativity and critical thinking,” and smaller schools and “a more intimate or relaxed environment,” Manuel told the school board.

Also, he said, some students who aspire to attend private schools or colleges in the United States use a public school experience as a first step.

Manuel said potential risks for the district include the possibility that with a younger student from abroad, “there’s always a chance it may not be a good fit.”

Board chairman Tim Harkins expressed concern about potential costs or additional staff necessary to operate such a program, but Manuel said he anticipated such a program could be self-sustaining.

“It sounds like there are a lot of positive aspects,” Harkins said. “As a board, we need to see more formal data. I don’t see any downside.”

The approval process typically takes about six months, according to Manuel, meaning if the board moves forward and the district gains federal approval, RSU 1 could begin accepting students in September 2012, “but it would be tight. If not next year, then the year after.”

“We want to be thoughtful about this … ( and) make sure the first international experience we have is a positive one.”

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