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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 26, 2012

Will the world come to BKW?
By Zach Simeone

BERNE — As enrollment declines sharply at Berne-Knox-Westerlo, the district has begun an approval process with the Department of Homeland Security to determine whether or not BKW would be suitable for an international student program.

“We’re bringing the world into the BKW community,” said school board member Helen Lounsbury, a proponent of the program, “and we’re bringing the BKW community into the world. It’s broadening everyone’s horizons, on both ends. I think that’s the real benefit.”

A recent visit by BKW board members to the Newcomb School District in the Adirondacks showed the potential for economic, academic, and cultural enrichment in educating students from abroad, and the superintendent told The Enterprise on Tuesday that, though it took some adjusting, the district has grown 75 percent in five years, due in large part to the program.

“It really has redefined our school district,” said Clark “Skip” Hults, superintendent at Newcomb. “We started this because we were facing a couple issues: One was a lack of diversity, which is common in rural areas; and secondly, our school was just losing students slowly over a number of years, and we were at a very critical point when we began bringing in international students.”

BKW, too, has wrestled with declining enrollment in recent years. A Cornell study six years ago predicted a decline in BKW’s enrollment from 1,100 to 792 in a decade. Current enrollment is 932, and it is projected to drop by 2.25 percent to 911 next year.

“What we discovered,” BKW Superintendent Paul Dorward said Wednesday, “is that this can be a pretty lengthy process, so we’re sending in the application in attempt to do a pilot program for next fall.”

Dorward visited Newcomb in March to learn about the program, accompanied by board members Helen Lounsbury and Jill Norray; secondary-school Principal Thomas McGurl; social studies teacher and co-athletic director Thomas Galvin; Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier; Berne Planning Board Chairman Gerard Chartier; and a handful of BKW community members: Winnie Chartier, Thomas Gagnon, Carla Perrone, Pamela Fenoff, and Jean Forti.

Said Galvin, “You had kids from China; you had kids from South America; and they’re all intermingling with the American kids from the Adirondacks. You breakdown country barriers, and it was like any other school in America. They’re talking, making friends, playing together on sports teams. It was a really neat experience.”

Diversity in the Adirondacks

This is the fifth year that Newcomb has welcomed students from abroad. In that time, the district has housed a total of 41 students from 21 different countries.

“Socially, academically, and culturally, it has made very significant differences,” Hults told The Enterprise. “And it just seems like it’s raised the academic bar. We noticed, when you bring in sharp students from around the world, it enriches your students in the classroom, which enriches the academics of the entire class.”

In early 2007, Newcomb, a relatively small district, had only 55 students, from pre-kindergarten up to 12th grade. Now, the district has 96 students, but only 13 are international students, meaning that, since the district added the program, the population of local students has increased by nearly 50 percent.

“According to the families that have come here, one of the reasons is that they’ve seen the diversity, and they want their kids exposed to this globalized world we live in,” Hults said of that growth.

Some international students do struggle in English class initially, he said. However, last year, the student that got the highest English-regents score at Newcomb was not an American student; it was a girl visiting from France that got a 96.

Moreover, these students contribute to class discussions in ways that most American students could not.

“We’ve had a girl from Iraq,” Hults said, “and, when she begins to discuss the impact of the Iraq War on her life, that more than makes up for any language deficiencies. We’ve had a Palestinian girl who lived in Israel; we’ve had students from Vietnam. When you start talking about the Vietnam War, and you have two students from Vietnam, and three students from France, that’s an interesting mix, and you can imagine the discussions you can have in that scenario.”

When asked whether there were any negative impacts, Hults was initially at a loss, though he recalled a German boy who studied at Newcomb last year, and was an exceptional baseball player.

“We had a pitcher from Germany who was unbelievable,” said Hults. “Well, if he’s our starting rotation pitcher, that means there’s probably someone else who would not get to pitch. But we were also winning games we would have never won.”

Federal law and finances

The federal law that governs F-1 student visas puts a one-year limit on those who visit public schools, while those visiting private schools can stay the full four years. United States Senator Charles Schumer is looking to reform this through the Strengthening America’s Public Schools through Promoting Foreign Investment Act, which was introduced in April of 2011.

“The students cannot, by federal law, have a negative impact on your budget,” Hults said Tuesday. “You have to do one of two things: You either have to charge per capita, which, for us, would be $5 million divided by about 100 students — we can’t charge $50,000 to these international students; or you set your tuition, as long as you can prove that you’re offsetting all expenses.”

Tuition for international students who study at Newcomb is $8,000 a year, $4,000 of which goes to the district, and $4,000 of which goes to the American family hosting the student. The tuition is paid entirely by the family of the visiting international student.

With 11 full-year students, and two-half year students, this program brought $48,000 into the district. With expenses for these students totaling about $25,000 for the year, Newcomb netted about $23,000 in revenue from these students, or about $2,000 per student.

“But school districts can charge more; we were more interested in the social, cultural, and academic benefits than the financial reasons,” said Hults. “This works because we’re underutilized — I have the teachers; I have the desks; I have the books; I have everything but students. So, if I add 10 more students, it does not cost me additional funds, except for consumables, and field trips, and meals. So, we keep track of every expense for these students.”

There was a transitional period, but Hults now sees the international student body as an integral part of his school district.

“When you change a culture in a school, it really does take time,” he said. “When I asked the board to allow me to do this, I asked them to give me five years. The first couple of years were much rougher than it is now. Since then, it’s become like a norm. These kids so quickly become a part of our school culture that it’s not an issue.”

Dorward said Wednesday that the next step is discussions with the school board about how many students the district could welcome in its first year, and what BKW should charge for tuition.

“There’s a chance that approval from DHS won’t come in time to do that for next fall,” Dorward said, “in which case we’d have additional time to plan.”

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