Northern Maine is 7,000 miles and a world away from China, but that's not stopping a school superintendent from recruiting Chinese students to attend public high school in this remote mill town.
Faced with declining enrollments and shrinking revenues, public school districts from Maine to California are seeking out students from overseas, particularly China, to attend their high schools. At least two public schools in Maine have 10 tuition-paying Chinese students in classes this year, and the superintendent in Millinocket is the latest to set his sights on China.
It's a growing trend: Other schools are doing the same in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia and Washington, according to a student recruitment agency in San Francisco.
Next fall, Millinocket Superintendent Ken Smith hopes to have at least 60 Chinese students — each paying $13,000 in tuition and another $11,000 for room and board — at Stearns High School. Stearns at one time had close to 700 high school students, but enrollment has fallen over the years to under 200 this year.
The first-year batch is now being signed up, Smith said, with plans for more international students in the years ahead. Local students will benefit by being exposed to those from abroad, and Chinese students will gain from being immersed in the local culture, he said.
When Smith went on a recruiting trip to the cities of Shanghai, Beijing and Fuzhou last fall, students there had never heard of Maine. But they knew they wanted to come to America to enhance their chances of going to an American college or university.
"They didn't know where Maine was, but they knew where Harvard was," Smith said. "They all want to go to Harvard."
As Maine's overall population has aged, the student population has shrunk. That's particularly true in remote areas where jobs have disappeared, forcing young people to leave.
Millinocket's population has fallen 30 percent in the past 20 years. Two paper mills that used to be the lifeblood of the regional economy, employing more than 4,000 workers at their peak in the 1980s, are skeletons of their past selves — one is idle and the other employs about 450 workers.
With a fiscal crunch and projections for a continued slide in enrollment, Smith last fall joined the heads of three private schools in Maine on a recruiting trip to China.
Chinese students could be forgiven if they experience culture shock in a place like northern Maine.
Located at the gateway to Maine's North Woods 3½ hours north of Portland, Millinocket has less than 5,000 people, no public transportation and nearly 8 feet of snowfall each year. The town has a 15-percent jobless rate and is more than 98 percent white. The nearest mall or movie theater is more than an hour away.
By contrast, the Chinese cities Smith is targeting have tens of millions of people among them and serve as financial, political and cultural centers.
As for education, Smith acknowledges the school's poor test scores. The percentage of juniors at Stearns meeting state standards for writing, reading, science and math stood between 36 and 41 percent in the latest round of testing.
The Chinese families are aware of the scores, but are more interested in how many advanced placement classes the school has and how many students are accepted to college, he said. Many Chinese students look at Stearns as a steppingstone toward an American university or to a private school to finish out high school and as place to immerse themselves in the English language, he said.
And he's convinced that foreign students will be pleased with the school and that the region's assets — clean air, clean water, low crime, good roads, good health care, natural beauty and nearby Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail — work in the school's favor.
"The other goal is to give our kids exposure to other countries so they can be more competitive when they go out in the world market," Smith said. "Understanding other countries, I believe, is part of the future of education."
In remote Newcomb, N.Y., the high school this year took in nine international students — three from Russia, two from France, two from Vietnam, and one from Korea — who pay $3,500 each for tuition and another $3,500 to live with a host family. The school is bringing in foreign students not just for revenue, but also to keep its numbers up — it has only 34 students this year — and expose its students to other cultures, said Principal Skip Hults.
"We felt like our high school was becoming too small, both socially and academically," Hults said.
Other schools nationwide are also taking a look overseas, said Shayna Ferullo of Quest International, a student recruitment agency in San Francisco. A handful of public school districts have recruited overseas for a few years, but in the past year public schools in places such as Virginia Beach, Va.; Tacoma, Wash.; Lavaca, Ark.; Chicago; and Hopkinton and Arlington, Mass.; to name a few, have recruited students from abroad, she said.
In Maine, seven Chinese students are attending Orono High School, paying $13,000 each in tuition and $8,000 for room and board while staying with local families. Three Chinese students this year have attended Camden Hills Regional High School in Rockport, paying $15,000 in tuition and $5,000 for room and board to stay with local families.
Lei Huang, 16, from Shanghai, is attending Camden Hills high school this year. The school aims to have 10 foreign students next year, from China and Vietnam.
Schools in China, he said, demand long days in the classroom and long nights doing homework, with an emphasis on memorization and testing. In Camden, he appreciates the emphasis on creativity and tapping into students' interests.
Outside of school, he likes being able to drink water out of the tap, the abundance of trees and time to participate on the high school ski team. But he misses buying live fish at seafood markets in China, authentic Chinese food and public transportation so that he's not dependent on others with cars to get around.
"Everything is different. Even eating pancakes is different," he said. "I put ketchup on my pancakes the first time because I didn't know how to eat them."
Unlike those attending private schools, foreign students are allowed to attend public schools for only one year because of American visa regulations. That means Huang and other public-school international students will have to go elsewhere next year.
In Lei's case, he plans to attend a private high school next year before eventually moving on to college. He wants to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In Orono, 16-year-old Peng Yue — who goes by "Cherry" at school — and six others from Changsha, China, have been taking classes. The students, all fluent in English, get mostly A's with a few scattered B's.
A junior, Peng hopes to attend another American high school next year before college. She has her eye on Columbia University, where she'd like to study economics. She says she may be Chinese, "but I have an American dream," she said.
Orono High School expects to have 40 to 45 students next year, with roughly half from China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, and the other half from Europe and Brazil.
The foreign students have yet to arrive in Millinocket, but the school and the town have been preparing for their arrival.
Alyssa McLean, a 16-year-old junior at Stearns, said it'll be good for the town to have some outside influences, although some townspeople might be wary of having students come from so far away.
Still, she's convinced the new students will be impressed with the school and the region.
"I think they'll have a hard time adjusting because it's so much about nature around here, and they have so many large cities," she said. "They'll like it, I think, but there'll be an adjustment."