The US school selling places overseas
- 7 June 2012
- From the section Business
US colleges have long seen international students as a rich source of revenue with 750,000 studying at US universities.
But it appears more and more high schools across the country, with shrinking budgets and fewer enrolments, are starting to do the same.
Across the US public high schools in struggling small towns are putting their empty classroom seats up for sale to foreign students.
In Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Maine and New York, administrators are recruiting international students.
For the school it means extra income, while the pupils experience a year in an American school and a chance of admission to a US college.
Nestled in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains, Newcomb Central School is located in one of the least densely populated regions in the country. A five-hour drive from New York City, the region offers spectacular scenery and sublime solitude.
It is to this overwhelmingly white town of just 400 that students from around the globe are coming.
School principal Skip Hults was one of the first administrators to recruit from abroad.
"We were facing under-enrolment with 55 students in a building that holds 350. We were a dying school district. You can't have a classroom when you have a class of one," he says.
"In the words of my daughter, we were just 'so vanilla'. The school had no racial diversity and our kids were not prepared for a globalised world - so we decided to bring in international students."
Diversity of countries
The international student programme has now been running for five years.
The situation is not unusual in New York's shrinking rural communities, which dot the vast Adirondack Park.
Across central New York state, nearly every school district has seen a drop in enrolment over the last 20 years. Some districts have merged and in other cities schools are being closed.
At Newcomb's school, in 2007 there were 55 students. This year 101 pupils are in the classrooms with more than 10% coming from abroad, from countries including China, Russia, Spain and Brazil.
"The international programme has really redefined who we are. It's more than a student, it's a country that's coming along being represented with that student," says Mr Hults.
"We've had 43 students from 21 countries over the last five years. We hope to have students from as many countries of the world as we can."
Few public school principals ever dreamed of charging tuition for Chemistry or American History, but as public funding has been eroded and education budgets cut, they have been forced to look at alternatives to bring in cash.
The programme brings in $9,000 (£5,800) per student per year with the costs split between tuition and accommodation.
The money goes towards school funds and the host families. The students stay with other families who live in the town.
It is pretty good value compared with many equivalent private schools that can charge up to $30,000 a year with the aim of making a healthy profit.
18-year-old senior Rebecca Bolen grew up in Newcomb and says it is not always plain sailing for the newcomers.
"There are good and bad things about the town. It's pretty difficult," she says with a smirk.
"Everyone knows everyone. There's always that one person that says something but overall the community has been really open to the international students.
"Our school has grown because of it with people from other towns wanting to come here."
With the annual prom just a few days away, the school is in an excitable mood. Some of last year's international students have come back for the event.
An evening concert is taking place with almost every student involved. Many of the town's residents will be coming to watch as well as take part in a fundraising dinner. At more than 60 miles from the nearest big town, the school is the centre of the community.
Outside the school, virtually no traffic passes by during the day. There's also no mobile phone service.
For international students like 17-year-old Caio Benyuneszatz from Brazil it's like nothing they've ever experienced.
"I chose New York but I thought it was the city," he says in near-perfect English.
"When I came here it was a big shock for me. I've been here for nine months so everything's fine. I like it."
Jorge Cristobal from Madrid made the same mistake and quickly realised that upstate New York is not the same as New York City.
"When I heard about Newcomb I looked it up on Google maps. I was like 'Wow! Where am I going? There is nothing here! It's green, it's just trees!' But it's great fun - there are no cars in the road so it's pretty safe too."
The school's isolation means all the students focus on extracurricular activities like sport and music - and of course learning English, which is a valuable benefit as the students look to the future.
Lucy Couston and Manone Vernette have just turned 20. They studied in Newcomb last year and are now at universities in France. They credit their success at home with the time they spent in the US.
"Because we came over here we got into better colleges," says Lucy.
"We graduated from here, our English was much better and it was easier to get into good colleges in France because of that," agrees Manone.
School recruiters in the US say the year abroad is a chance for students to perfect their language skills and build ties with US teachers who can serve as personal referees on applications to American colleges.
There is a diverse mix of students applying for places for next year including from Thailand, Vietnam, Bolivia, Italy, Zimbabwe and Russia.
School principal Skip Hults says with agencies finding the students he no longer worries about filling the places.
The only requirements are that they speak some English and have a sense of adventure.
"I am trying to bring in students from countries and cultures that we haven't had before," he says.
"From a school that people really gave no future for we have been recognised and people are intrigued by this bringing of the globalised world into this tiny little school and finding out that students love it."