STRONG — More foreign exchange students have been coming to Maine in recent years to attend private high schools, but many public schools also interested in expanding their cultural diversity have struggled to keep pace.

Some educators believe the public schools are being left behind because they can’t compete financially with private institutions, which are reaping educational benefits for their students by tapping into the increasing number of student exchange programs looking for partners in America.

The biggest difference recently has been the growing divide between schools’ abilities to find places for the exchange students to live when they get here, according to the Maine Principals’ Association Executive Director Dick Durost.

Public school districts, which are taxpayer-supported and have open enrollment, rely on community members who let exchange students live in their homes while they study at nearby high schools.

Private school institutions, where students pay tuition to attend, can offer the same option. But, over the last five years, many of those institutions statewide have also been adding to their on-campus housing facilities to attract more students from abroad, Durost said.

“It’s private schools trying to increase their enrollment and revenues due to the added tuition and room-and-board payments from exchange students,” he said of the spike in on-campus housing.

Meanwhile, public school districts can’t seem to find enough people willing to host the recent flood of exchange students coming into Maine from certain countries, especially China, according to Durost.

He attributed the public schools’ problem to community members worrying about everything from tight household budgets to caring for a student from a different culture.

“It’s a major responsibility that host parents are taking on in terms of welcoming a student into their home for the year,” he said.

The difference between public vs. private approaches is also tied to the two different federal programs that control how long exchange students can study in the U.S., Durost said.

The two options basically consist of exchange students who get their high school and college education in the U.S., compared to those who attend for a single year or less. Giving them an option to live in a high school campus facility is much more stable and attractive to the students interested in the extended educational program, he said.

Durost didn’t know how many more exchange students are attending private schools since the recent on-campus housing push. He called it a huge increase when compared to most public high schools that have seen almost no change in exchange student enrollment during the same five-year period.

Getting the cultural exposure

There are some small, rural public schools that haven’t seen an increase in exchange student enrollment for more than a decade, according to Michael Ellis.

Ellis has supervised exchange student programs for the past 10 years at Mt. Abram High School in Strong, which has about 260 students as part of School Administrative District 58 in northern Franklin County, he said.

District officials have partnered with foreign exchange student programs, which help them reach out to the community to find host families, hoping to bring more cultural diversity to the mostly “white American” student population, Ellis said.

“We’re in a pretty rural area, so it’s nice to have that cultural exposure,” he said.

Despite the efforts, the high school has never had more than two or three exchange students per year. There is a French class exchange program, which brings about 15 students from France to the school, but that only lasts two weeks, compared to the typical year-long student exchange programs, he said.

There are different programs where exchange programs.

The high school could handle more overseas students without adding staff, but there just aren’t enough places for them to live. It’s a problem that is pretty common in small communities, Ellis said.

“The biggest issue is finding host families and trying to get people to open up their homes,” he said.

Charity Webster, an exchange program manager from Mexico, has been trying to find host families in SAD 58 and other Maine school districts. There are about five students on waiting lists from various countries in Asia, Europe and South America who are hoping to study in the spring semester, but so far Webster has struggled to find placements, she said.

She represents Pacific Intercultural Exchange, a program that helps bring about 25 exchange students to study in Maine high schools each year. There are typically five students from the program each year who study in Franklin, Somerset and Kennebec counties, Webster said.

Sarah Stone and her husband, Isaac, both age 31, have taken exchange students form the program into their Winslow home for the last two years.

Isaac Stone works as a nurse manager in Waterville, and his Sarah Stone works from their home as a medical transcriptionist. The couple has a 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, but they decided to be hosts mainly because they wanted to learn about other cultures themselves, Sarah Stone said.

“It’s been a good experience and it’s really amazing how much you learn about another culture,” she said. “It’s really eye-opening and even if you took a vacation to these countries, you wouldn’t find out as much about the world.”

They are hosting a Venezuelan student named Eduardo Ojeda who is currently a junior attending Winslow High School. Sarah Stone said there are a lot of misconceptions about being a host family.

The students are picked because they are the best and brightest from their native countries, she said. They also get sent money to pay for special outings and basically everything other than shelter, food and other essentials.

“It’s adding another plate at the dinner table and some extra gas money maybe. It really isn’t the financial burden that some people think it will be,” she said.

David Robinson — 861-9287

[email protected]

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