Thornton Academy Headmaster Rene Menard will be honored at the White House on Monday for the Saco school’s success in enrolling overseas students.

The President’s “E” Award recognizes efforts to increase U.S. exports, which in Menard’s case is exporting education.

“It’s counterintuitive,” Menard said with a laugh.

But recruiting and enrolling 155 students from 22 countries, bringing in $7 million in tuition and fees, is no laughing matter. It has transformed the school financially, academically and culturally since the international program was launched in 2008, Menard said.

“We are preparing our students for a changing world. What better way than to bring the world to Thornton Academy?” Menard said.

Thornton Academy started seeing declining local enrollment years ago, and decided to add dorms and a residential program to boost enrollment at the academy, which serves as the local school for Saco-area residents but charges tuition for students outside the school district.

Tuition for in-state boarding students, set by the state, is $10,300 a year. Foreign students pay $42,000 a year for room, board and tuition.

Implementing the plan required building the dorms, setting up a new admissions office, hiring more staff and launching a recruitment process that included overseas travel to trade shows to talk to prospective students and their families. The two new dorms filled up quickly and today the school books every available bed, and has about 40 more international students who stay with families in the community.

“This strategy was a leap of faith and we decided we are going to take the risk,” Menard said.

It’s an idea being pursued by many Maine schools, from public K-12 schools to the University of Maine System. Maine is the oldest state in the nation with declining numbers of young people, and that has severely hurt local school budgets. Gov. Paul LePage recently announced an October trade mission to Japan and China for both business and educational institutions.

But visa regulations limit foreign students to just one year at a public school, whereas there is no limit to how long students may attend private schools.

Menard said the additional revenue from the international students has been used to expand academic programs. Before those students arrived, Thornton Academy offered six Advanced Placement courses; today there are 24. It also offers seven foreign language courses and a full symphony orchestra, he said. In turn, those expanded academic offerings become a recruiting tool to attract new students, he said.

Menard said the school may expand the international program in the future. There are two sites – located between the existing dorms – on the school’s 88-acre campus that are already permitted by the city for the construction of more dorms.

“For now, we’re really focused on refining the program (and) providing support for these students,” Menard said.

Most of the international students are from China, and all of them attend Thornton Academy because they want to get into an American college, he said. Attending a high school gets them familiar with American culture, strengthens their language skills and can ease the transition to college.

“The demand for an American education in China is massive,” he said. Parents’ sending their children to Thornton Academy or another U.S. high school is “the best way” to give them an advantage, he said.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

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