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New Chinese Students at Montpelier High School Could be Start of Trend

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by Phil Dodd

Starting in January, Montpelier High School welcomed five ninth-graders from China into the student body as part of a pilot program being run with a Burlington group called Spiral International. The program is designed to help foreign students learn English and provide cross-cultural experiences for both the Chinese and Montpelier students.

The program is also adding more money to the coffers of the Montpelier school system. Each student is paying about $7,000 per semester to attend the school.

Of the extra money, Superintendent Brian Ricca said, “We have no specific plans for the revenue that is a result of the students for this semester.” He also has not budgeted any revenue for next year because the continuation of the program is not definite. Spiral International is working with other schools in Vermont, but Montpelier has the most students so far. Burlington High School has one Chinese student.

If the pilot program is deemed successful and Spiral International continues to partner with Montpelier High School, as many as 10 foreign students could be attending Montpelier High School next year and living with host families. But an even greater expansion is being talked about.

Montpelier High School science and math teacher Anne Watson recently received a $100,000 Rowland Foundation Fellowship that will allow her to work part time next academic year while she explores the legal and logistic issues that would be needed to recruit 20 or more foreign students to the high school and house them in dorms at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, beginning in the 2016-2017 school year. The fellowship money will allow Montpelier High School to hire substitutes to cover the courses Watson will not be teaching next year.

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Watson noted that Vermont private schools bring in international students, including many students from China. “If Lyndon Institute and St. Johnsbury Academy can have tuition-paying foreign students, why not Montpelier High School?” Watson said.

By the year after next, Montpelier High School could have many as 20 foreign students — the minimum needed to run a boarding program at Vermont College with dorm parents, Watson said, with perhaps others staying with host families.

She estimated students would pay about $15,000 for tuition, and another $15,000 for room and board in the dorms, including three meals a day at the New England Culinary Institute cafeteria. Additional funds would be needed for covering dorm parents and other costs, so students could end up paying $40,000 a year to stay in the dorms. That price is still below what boarding students pay to attend St. Johnsbury Academy and Lyndon Institute, she said.

If everything goes well, a boarding program at the college could potentially be ramped up to bring in 40 to 60 students, Watson said, which could net the school district as much as half a million dollars and take pressure off property taxpayers in the city. Currently, there is room for more students at the high school, she noted. Watson, also a member of the city council, is in her 11th year teaching at Montpelier High School.

Watson has heard that some Chinese parents prefer that their children stay in dorms with other Chinese students, although Spiral International President Dr. Emily Guo thinks parents prefer that their sons and daughters stay in homes where they can learn more English and be immersed in American culture. She also said that living with and sharing with other children in a home can be a good learning experience, since most Chinese students come from one-child families. She said Spiral International believes that the number of students at a high school should be limited to 10 or so, because a larger number might create a “sort of Chinese school within the school.”

MHS principal Adam Bunting said the school will wait until after this semester ends in June to decide the future of the current program. He added that he could imagine students from other parts of this country or in-state might also want to come to Montpelier to attend the high school, creating a sort of “Montpelier Academy.” Bunting said he was somewhat surprised that the first students to come live in town to attend high school were from China.

Both Guo and Watson agree that there is a strong demand in China among parents to have their children learn in an English-speaking environment. Guo noted that Vermont students get the advantage of learning about another culture and perhaps considering going abroad themselves.

Students can only come for one year in total because of federal restrictions on foreign students in public schools (there are no restrictions for private schools). Guo said the students currently in Montpelier are gradually adjusting to life in Vermont, including the new foods, speaking English all the time, and experiencing colder temperatures than they are used to. She said most of the ninth-graders are expected to return here for another semester later in their high school careers.

By then, Montpelier educators and residents will have had a chance to consider if such programs make sense, and if they do, how many foreign students are desirable and whether it is better to house them in dorms or with parents, or to offer both options.