After visiting the world’s largest country, school district officials are optimistic about the mutual benefits of expanding its 3-year-old international program.
Twice as many Chinese students may attend Presque Isle High School next year, thanks to a steady wave of Chinese families interested in having their children educated in the United States.
Chinese parents are eager for their children to become “critical thinkers and problem-solvers,” said curriculum director Terry Wood, who along with other district officials visited China in late September. They met with families and partner schools teaching SAD 1 content in English, health and civics. “The parents of these students really want them to attend a U.S. university,” Wood said.
Amid a shrinking student population and stagnant state funding, SAD 1 is among several Maine school districts running an international program to host students from China — bringing more funding and more cultural diversity. Chinese families each pay about $33,000 annually for a student to attend the high school, including housing, meals, transportation and tutoring. In the 2014-15 school year, the international students’ tuition contributed about $50,000 to the district’s budget.
In each of the past two years, five Chinese students have attended classes in Presque Isle.
In Nanning, a regional capital in southern China, there are 20 juniors attending a school and learning English, health and civics curriculum based on Presque Isle High School’s programs, and all have the option of attending Presque Isle High for half a year or a full year, although district officials do not expect more than 10.
Among the other benefits, the international program allows students in central Aroostook County to make some new friends and learn about China, a country of 1.3 billion people with an advancing economy that may soon surpass the United States as the world’s largest.
“It’s a wonderful cultural experience for our kids,” said Wood, who has hosted some of the students at her home. For instance, some SAD 1 students are now able to take language classes in Mandarin, a valuable asset for anyone who might want to work in global business.
This year, four seniors and one sophomore in the international program are attending Presque Isle High School. Shulei Zhang, a native of Hanzhong, China, also tutors the Chinese students and teaches Mandarin while she works on a master’s degree at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
The youngsters are among thousands of Chinese students who come to America each year to learn the same curriculum as students in private and public schools, many using the F-1 student visa. Though they are ambitious and preparing to take the Test of English as a Foreign Language, their experience in Presque Isle is different than what they’d have in China, where students can spend more than 8 hours per day, six days a week in classroom instruction and rote-learning — in a hyper-competitive environment.
“Parents have so much pressure on their child to succeed, and they want those kids to have the opportunity to go overseas,” Suzanne Fox, who advises schools on recruiting international students, told the Bangor Daily News earlier this year. “They see themselves being such a powerhouse in the 21st century and they want their youngsters to know how to interact as global citizens. They were just so shut off from the outside world for a long time.”
While America’s education system has taken much flak for standardized testing and our nation’s mediocre math and science skills, a U.S. education is understandably admired by many Chinese.
“It’s really the quality over quantity in content and creative problem-solving that sets us apart,” said Presque Isle High School principal Ben Greenlaw.
Along with the goals of their parents, for skills and an opportunity to live and work in the United States, the international program offers Chinese students exposure to American values — democracy, criticism of government, free expression and leisure.
“They were amazed that they could have fun,” Greenlaw said.