IN THE REGION — For the past five years, East Lyme High School has welcomed between six and ten international students from China into their community. The students are recruited by SPIRAL International, a Vermont-based student exchange program, which pays East Lyme High School $19,000 per student. This year, however, just one student is participating in the program.
“Due to the big political climate between the two countries, a lot of students are afraid of coming to the U.S. this year,” said Jia Shi, the program director at SPIRAL International. “For this year, yes it is becoming harder to recruit students. We are hoping it will improve because the two big countries need each other.”
East Lyme is not the only school that has seen a decline in international exchange students, Shi said. This year across all of SPIRAL’s programs they have had trouble recruiting, but Shi said he is hopeful this decline will not become a trend.
“We feel promise and hope for the coming years,” Shi said.
In addition to East Lyme High School, SPIRAL sends students to New London Public Schools during both the academic year and summer. For the 28 students who attend the summer program, a dual-degree option is available between their high school in China and New London public schools.
Many other school districts in southeastern Connecticut – including Lyme-Old Lyme schools – have for years been investigating recruiting tuition-paying international students into their districts. According to the State Department of Education, such recruitment is uncommon in other parts of the state.
“We’ve looked at five different programs and spoken to a few organizations that do this, but have yet to find one that’s the right fit,” said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of the Lyme-Old Lyme Schools. “The goal is to bring diversity to our school community, especially cultural diversity. We struggle with creating a diverse community and preparing students for the diverse world they are going to be part of. It would also increase student enrollment.”
For many districts in southeastern Connecticut that are losing students each year, increasing enrollment is the underlying motivation for joining programs like SPIRAL.
Although the SPIRAL program was not the right fit for Lyme-Old Lyme, according to Neviaser, he said that the district has begun looking into collaborating with the ACES schools in New Haven. ACES currently has a program that attracts students from France, China, Australia and Spain.
“If we partnered with ACES we would pay $15,000 to $20,000 to be part of it, and if we get at least one student then that cost would be covered,” Neviaser said. Such exchanges would begin no earlier than the 2020-2021 school year, Neviaser said.
ACES was unavailable to comment for this story.
Exchanges in Region 4
Region 4 has also tried to recruit international students into the district. In 2017, SPIRAL organized a summer camp program at Valley Regional High School in Deep River.
“We worked with Valley and Superintendent Ruth [Levy] was very supportive. They hosted our summer camp program, but it only ran for one summer,” Shi said.
Although SPIRAL judged the summer camp a success, according to Shi, no Chinese students chose to attend Valley Regional High School for either the 2017-18 or 2018-19 academic years.
SPIRAL paid the district $20,781.89 for hosting the program.
An accounting sheet detailing that money was the target of a number of freedom of information requests and legal maneuvering between district residents and the Region 4 School Board over two years, costing the district $23,771.50 in legal fees. The district has not explained its motivation for withholding that information.
The records show that families were paid $250 to host a child for two weeks. Assistant Superintendent Kristina Martineau was paid $2,646.71.
“Dr. Martineau hosted 3 students for a 2-week period as part of the SPIRAL program. The payments listed on the spreadsheet were to reimburse her for expenses in connection with the entire program,” said Brian White, current superintendent of Region 4.
White said that her work related to the program was additional and “outside the scope of her normal job.” A Freedom of Information request has been filed with the district for the receipts of these expenses.