Maine school finds Chinese recruiting a tough sell

A school district in the deep woods of Maine that sought out Chinese students to help boost its enrollment and its finances fell far short of its ambitious goal of bringing in 60 students.

Only six Chinese students will attend high school in the northern Maine town of Millinocket this fall.

The target of five dozen was probably overly ambitious, officials said. The efforts also were hindered by a recruiter in China who failed to deliver any students and a writer who told readers of a national Chinese newspaper that the school was merely "mediocre" and that Millinocket children hang out in parking lots for fun.

Stearns High School officials said they're disappointed more Chinese students won't be attending when classes begin Sept. 6 but will stick with the program and try to expand in the years ahead.

"We're also a public school, not a private school or an academy or attached to a university or college," said Arnold Hopkins, chairman of the Millinocket school board. "We're a rural school out there by ourselves and we're untested, so to speak. So naturally I would think the Chinese would be a bit hesitant."

The six students are scheduled to stay with host families in Millinocket, a town of about 4,500 people an hour north of Bangor. Each student will pay $24,000 in tuition, room and board.

Private schools have recruited students from China and other overseas locations for years. Faced with declining enrollment and shrinking revenues, a number of public schools around the country have begun doing the same in the past few years.

As Millinocket has fallen on hard times with the decline and eventual closure of the area's two paper mills, high school enrollment has fallen to about 200, down from more than 700 in years past.

Its Chinese recruitment initiative was begun last fall by Superintendent Kenneth Smith, who started with a target of 25 and later upped it to 60.

The program would benefit Chinese students by immersing them in American society, sharpening their English skills and enhancing their chances to go to a U.S. college or university, Smith said, while also helping local students by opening their eyes to other cultures.

From the start, Smith knew he was at a competitive disadvantage to private schools. Foreign students are allowed to attend a public school for only one year because of American visa regulations, whereas private schools aren't restricted as to how long students may attend. Public schools pitch their programs as a way for foreign students to get a foot in the door in the U.S. and then move on to a university or a private school.

But school officials found it a harder sell than expected.

An opinion column in June in the Global Times, a national newspaper in China, took aim at U.S. public high schools in general and Millinocket in particular.

The author, an adjunct instructor at a law school program in China and a former high school teacher and prosecutor in the U.S., wrote that "the first thing to understand is that the average U.S. public high school isn't very good." He went on to call Stearns a "run-of-the-mill" school and said the "biggest kick for (Millinocket) kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot."

And until last week, a recruiter was still guaranteeing delivery of up to 60 Chinese students for the school, but ended up with none, Smith said.

In all, the school district has spent about $40,000 on the program, on consulting and legal fees and a recruiting trip by Smith, Hopkins said.

The school board now has to reconfigure its budget based on the program bringing in $144,000 in revenues rather than the $1.4 million that had been anticipated.

The district already has some of the shortfall covered by a carry-over from last year and savings on heating fuel, Hopkins said. To bridge the gap, the school might not fill some open positions and could consolidate programs at the school.

Despite falling short in recruiting, Smith is confident the program can grow and that word will spread about Millinocket's spacious school facilities and tight-knit community, and the region's natural beauty and recreational opportunities.

"It's not a question of numbers, it's more a question of establishing relationships and proving through example that this is who we are and this is what we can do," Smith said.

Hopkins also is confident that more Chinese students will come to Stearns. From the start, he favored beginning with a small number of students and building up from there.

"We're hoping if we can give them a really good experience they'll go back and talk about this and it will help us build our program," he said. "Eventually we'll probably get up to around 20 or 25."

The six who are arriving late this month come from the cities of Fuzhou and Wenzhou, and the Hunan province, said Suzanne Fox, who has helped the Millinocket community and the school prepare for the students. Fox's company, Fox Intercultural Consulting Services in Falmouth, works with communities and schools to ensure a welcoming environment for overseas students.

"Absolutely there's a place for this program to succeed," Fox said. "It's just going to be a little slower, a little more methodical."