Importing high school students from China: Can they and their money save struggling American schools?

You run a small, rural school system that is steadily losing students and hope. With the closing of the local paper mill, the town is down to 5,000 people; the high school has 200 teens, half of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. Where do you turn for relief?


In one of the most interesting education stories of the year, The New York Times reports that the superintendent in Millinocket, Maine, is recruiting students from China to rev up his flagging system.

It’s an audacious plan, considering that the superintendent wants to charge Chinese families $27,000 a year to send their children to a high school that now offers one AP class.

Yes, Maine is beautiful as Superintendent Kenneth Smith tells the Times, but Chinese families can pay a lot less and just vacation in the state for a month. I give the guy credit for his chutzpah. If it works, we ought to think about the idea for our struggling Georgia districts as I don’t think relief is coming their way next year from the state.

According to the Times: (This is only a bit of the story. Read it all. It’s great.)

Never mind that ever mind that Millinocket is an hour’s drive from the nearest mall or movie theater, or that it gets an average 93 inches of snow a year. Kenneth Smith, the schools superintendent, is so certain that Chinese students will eventually arrive by the dozen — paying $27,000 a year in tuition, room and board — that he is scouting vacant properties to convert to dormitories.

“We are going full-bore,” Dr. Smith said last week in his office at the school, Stearns High, where the Chinese words for “hello” and “welcome” were displayed on the dry-erase board and a Lonely Planet China travel guide sat on the conference table. “You’ve got to move if you’ve got something you believe is the right thing to do.”

On Friday, Dr. Smith left for China, where he is spending a week pitching Stearns High to school officials, parents and students in Beijing, Shanghai and two other cities. He has hired a consultant to help him make connections in China, lobbied Millinocket’s elected officials and business owners to embrace the plan and even directed the school’s cafeteria workers to add Chinese food to the menu.

With China’s emergence as an economic juggernaut, colleges, universities and private secondary schools have tried to recruit students from China and have even opened campuses there. But Millinocket’s plan may be unprecedented among public schools, even as they scramble for new sources of revenue.

“This is the first we’ve even heard of it,” said Alexis Rice, a spokeswoman for the National School Boards Association.

Dr. Smith, a native of Maine who has traveled outside New England only rarely, conceded he did not know much about China. But from what he had heard and read in recent months, he said, two things were clear: China had a large middle class with money to spend, and its students wanted to study here.

30 comments Add your comment


October 28th, 2010
1:05 pm

And any children born here to these chinese high schoolers would received auto-citizenship? We dont need anymore of that non-sense.

Free Market Champion

October 28th, 2010
1:21 pm

Money will not fix the problem. The statistics show absolutely no correllation between spending and success.

The way things are going this may be a positive for the kids in the school district. They will get the chance to learn Chinese which will come in handy when they forclose on all of our debts and take over our country.

And one has to wonder where the $27,000 figure came from. Certainly at that price these families could afford a much better private school where they would actually learn something.

Ormewood Native

October 28th, 2010
1:24 pm

I am sure many will take a knee jerk reaction to this and oppose it on a variety of grounds. However, as a long time educator, I have found foreign students to be a wonderful addition to local school culture, whether they be from Europe, Asia or Africa. At the high school where I now work, we currently have students from Latin America, Germany, Korea, and Sweden. They bring a touch of real world diversity to our school not found in American crypto-diversity where someone is considered “diverse” simply because of skin color. These kids live with American host families, take part in athletics, play in the band, and lead clubs and organizations. The great lesson for our native students is that these kids are just that: teenage kids with the same hopes and dreams as their own. Bring on the Chinese!


October 28th, 2010
1:25 pm

I have no problems with people who immigrate from other countries, I think it’s great. There are so many children in this country that need to be educated and their systems are failing them. If Maine is so hard up, I say let’s open up their schools to kids in failing school systems across this country and let the money from those school districts follow the students to Maine.

How much money does Maine spend per child each school year?

Heck we have over crowed school systems all over this country that could benefit from a low teacher student ratio, which could be provided in Maine.


October 28th, 2010
1:26 pm

Why do they have to go all the way to China?


October 28th, 2010
1:33 pm

This isn’t just a Maine thing, the Buffalo Public Schools proposed a school that would have half Chinese students/half American students in August. But, BPS is also already teaching Mandarin Chinese in some of its schools.


October 28th, 2010
2:46 pm

Dr. NO

I agree. You are a US citizen only because you were born here.

Larry Major

October 28th, 2010
3:25 pm

Meanwhile in Beijing, Hu Jin-boortz declares government schools a complete failure and laments families interested in education are fleeing en masse for the United States.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jon Warren, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: Importing high school students from China: Can they and their money save struggling American schools? [...]

Ole Guy

October 28th, 2010
3:44 pm

Would it not make a whole lot more sense, and, perhaps, produce longer-lasting; more-meaningful results if we studied the Oriental culture, and embraced those values which seem to spearhead Oriental achievements. Unless, and until, we are willing to admit to our collective selves that maybe…just maybe…we are not as great as we would like to believe, nothing of lasting value will become of such plans.

This would be tantamount to the baseball manager who, in order to get out of last place, brings aboard a few ringers who can pitch, throw, and bat a ball. Until we stop being afraid to teach our kids to “pitch, throw. and bat” within the American educational circus, nothing will change.

In order to teach those kids the skills necessary to play the ball game, we have to first learn to admit past failures in the ed systems across the Country, and then be willing to “do the hard things”…the unpopular things which will, over time, transform this Country back toward global greatness.

This plan of Superindendent Smith’s is nothing but a lazy way of hoping to achieve results the American way…LET MONEY DO THE TALKING.


October 28th, 2010
4:15 pm

The super has a screw lose: Chinese parents aren’t dumb enough to fall for this scheme.


October 28th, 2010
5:21 pm

A communist goverment operating a capitlist economy, brilliant system for the ruling class…I wonder what the conditions for the workers are like over there (cents an hour, no benefits, suicide nets at factories-see Foxconn (makers of the apple Ipod in China)…I mean it’s great for corporate profits and the ruling class not so much for the rest of the Chineese population. I just curious why the media glosses over all of this when covering China??


October 28th, 2010
5:21 pm

Thank you for accurately using the term ’struggling’ instead of ‘failing.’

Schools struggle when they are FAILED by the community and its politicians.

Richard Thompson

October 28th, 2010
7:39 pm

The key words in this story are closing paper mill. I worked for Georgia Pacific in the 1980’s and 1990’s. GP bought the company Great Northern Nekoosa which owned Millinocket paper .. Gp determined the mill was obslete and sold it off to currrent owners which apparently only recently closed it. This small mill town faces bleak prospects. This manufacturer has followed the likes of Fed Ex, Hewlett Packard, Dell,Coca Cola and Ford pursuing international expansion and leaving American workers in the dust. With real unemployment at 18.8% 30,000,000 American workers are underemployed or out of work. Our myopic and ill managed Federal Government has continued to blunder down paths of deficit spending so great that it will never be repaid and will lead to economic collapse. Any desperate measure such as outlined by the school board doing in this little town in Maine will be soon echoed thoughout America begging the only viable world leader, China ,to take us over!!!


October 28th, 2010
8:00 pm

After teaching for 32 years in 2 Dekalb schools, both of which had significant increasing populations students from China, Laos, Viet Nam,Korea, India, as well as South and Central American, I think that I have an accurate perception of what these students contribute to our schools.

IMO, these students, as a group, are far and away the most motivated,interested, and well behaved students I have ever taught.

We make such a huge deal of parental involvement in schools….yet , many , if not most of these students have parents that NEVER come to school conferences, or PTA meetings….nor do they need to. They have no idea how to help their children with their homework..nor are they at home to make sure they have a “desk, good lighting, etc”. Yet, these children are graduating in the top 10% of their class.

It is absolutely NOT parental involvement that makes a difference in student performance….

It is Parental Attitude. Many of these students see their parents only on weekends as they [the parents] work 2 and 3 jobs. The older students are responsible for the younger ones…cooking, bathing, etc.

However, academic achievement and polite, acceptable deportment is a matter of family pride and is definitely instilled in these children. For the most part , they do not need parents attending PTA meetings or volunteering or attending conferences/

It’s kind of like “BACK IN THE DAY”… parents NEVER attended PTA meetings…there were no parent conferences…but I never even considered not doing my work…nor did anyone else in my classes. AGAIN …it’s PARENTAL ATTITUDE AND EXPECTATIONS…..NOT PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT.


October 28th, 2010
9:36 pm

@enough already

because china serves as our greatest source of revenue when it comes to educational services. the demand for american educational services is somewhat inelastic (but increasingly elastic as we speak since the chinese government is going to great lengths to change that) plus china is so competitive and chinese parents are doing everything they can to get an edge for their children, they really are very willing to dish this amount of money without blinking twice.


October 28th, 2010
9:37 pm

Enter your comments here@enough already

correction: largest (or larger) source of revenue amongst foreign countries, not out of all of sources of revenue for educational services.


October 28th, 2010
9:40 pm


touche. you said it right. it’s a culture. we don’t have a culture of education. if we want education reform we’ll need a cultural revolution.


October 28th, 2010
9:43 pm


Unfortunately there are some who might. There’s a lot of hook and crook in the international study abroad and educational services department there. However, we can be sure that this school WILL NOT be on the top of the list for the parents. Chinese are conservative. They look at
1. Name
2. Safety


October 28th, 2010
9:44 pm

@Ole Guy
Amen. What I’ve been preaching on here for a while now.


October 28th, 2010
10:00 pm

@ Dr. No

Actually studies find that more and more Chinese expats are returning home after their studies in America. Many still stay here to find a job, but the numbers that are returning to reap the benefit of a modernizing and increasingly wealthy china are increasing as we speak. For example, a Chinese family that I know has parents that got their doctorate in NC, but moved back to Beijing, then had a kid. They come back regularly for trips to Disney World, but they are happy at home…Being Chinese, and not trying to become otherwise. Don’t get me wrong. They love America, and they may send their 8 year old daughter to an American school like Wellesley, but flocking to America and becoming American isn’t as attractive as it once was (not talking about Freedom and what not, only talking about the economic possibilities). So while that might be a concern for someone like yourself (although I don’t think people should worry so much!), trends suggest an opposing force is taking place.
2. Chinese high schoolers typically are not sexually active the way American high schoolers are, so rest your pretty head. They won’t be copulating to produce while here. You just don’t see it. Maybe in the countryside rural China. But not the educated. It’s not accepted. It’s a way that Americans just cannot fathom.


October 28th, 2010
10:07 pm

All of this talk makes me want to start on my career…so shameless plug: I am a recent college grad Wellesley 2009. Major in East Asian Studies. Minor Economics. I speak fluent Mandarin…and Spanish. I am unemployed. I need a job. After college I went to China and studied there for some time. Then I made what seems more and more as each day passes what seems to be a mistake: I came home.
I’ve spent lots of time in China as a student, researcher, and teacher. I am familiar with the foreign and study abroad education system there. Anyone need someone like me?


October 28th, 2010
10:07 pm


October 29th, 2010
7:40 am

Ms. Downey, would you ask your colleagues to look over the article filed for today’s paper. In it they state that TEACHERS changed answers. We know that to be largely incorrect, as they would have had to have administrative support to go back and change answers. In addition, in the section on Dekalb, I believe one of the problems is “procurement procedures” not “procedure procedures”.

HS Public Teacher

October 29th, 2010
8:15 am

Can public schools really be turned into psuedo private schools for foreign students? Wow. Will these students get special treatment (clearly stated or unstated but assumed)?

Too many outstanding questions regarding this issue.

HS Public Teacher

October 29th, 2010
8:16 am

Why not charge $50,000 per year per student and use the extra money to pay off the federal debt? LOL!

Maureen Downey

October 29th, 2010
8:56 am

Catlady, Online, the story says:
In July, SACS ordered the state’s third largest district to respond to seven questions concerning allegations of nepotism, conflict of interest, questionable procurement procedures and other ethical problems. The district sent back 2,500 pages of policies, meeting minutes and other evidence to document its compliance with the agency’s national standards for accreditation.

Did you see the double word in the print paper?


October 29th, 2010
2:34 pm

If I were a taxpayer of this school district, I would be questioning why my school superintendent is out globetrotting and hiring consultants to market an idea that is well beyond the scope of public education.

Really sounds like Dr. Smith needs to quit his day job and find some investors to open up private school.

[...] this link: Importing high school students from China: Can they and their … Share and [...]


October 30th, 2010
11:38 am

I just read Malcomn Gladwells book ‘Outliers the story of success’. In it he approaches the cultural differences affecting achievement and in this context importing Asians would be a very interesting experiment.