Shrinking Public Schools Turn to International Boarding Programs as a Lifeline

Withering Public Schools Turn to International Boarding Programs as a LifelineShrinking public school systems turning to international students to gain student population has been the topic of two articles within the past 10 days.

Stephanie Simon’s Reuter’s piece, “Insight: Public schools sell empty classroom seats abroad,” elucidates the why’s and how’s of rural american public schools turning to international students to fill classrooms. Simon covers the wooing of wealthy foreign- tuition paying- students to districts in Pennsylvania, New York Arkansas, and Maine.

The thematic thread binding the geographically disparate districts- shrinking demographics means they need money and students to survive.

For those of you familiar with the old New England Academy model, I suspect you’re saying to yourself, this is nothing new. It is, but it isn’t.

In the old academy model (which predated regional public school systems) towns paid the academy tuition to educate the students. A boarding component was part of the academies from the beginning providing families and towns the option to have students live on campus if a school wasn’t available in their area or they lived too far away to commute.

This new story is different in that we see public school systems adding a boarding component from scratch with the express intent to help build student population and shore-up finances. The schools have infrastructure in place and empty seats. Why not use them and improve the bottom line?

James Crotty adds a bit to the conversation over at in a piece titled “Should American Public Schools Be Reserved for Americans?

He sets up the use of agents (although he calls them- more politley – recruiters) and touches on the motives of the process as well as the support and services issues.

Combined, Simon and Crotty set-up the situation as American school systems seek to fill seats and close budget gaps by creating tuition driven offerings for wealthy foreign students. And, they touch on some of the tensions and issues:

  • Some Americans believe that public schools should be American?
  • International students compete for resources with domestic students?
  • Do international families understand what it means to live in rural small towns?
  • Are the public schools honest in their marketing to international families?
  • And, most importantly from my perspective, can, and are, the public schools doing for international students what they tell international families through their marketing materials, through their agents, and in person?
  • What are they selling and are they living up to their end of the bargain?
  • The role of agents in the process?
  • U.S. local parent tensions.

All of these questions and concerns are a good start.

Certainly tuition room and board in a public school with a home stay setting is cheaper and it opens American educational opportunities to broader range of international students. But, the boarding school administrator in me thinks that international parents and students should be asking a few more questions about student life and living in these quasi boarding school settings.

Questions From A Boarding School Eye

I don’t begrudge these districts getting into the boarding school business. I’m sympathetic to tight budgets and shrinking student populations. But, I think as they open their doors to international boarders, public systems need to professionalize boarding programs.

Regarding professionalization, I think traditional boarding schools have the public school with home stay approach beat. Traditional boarding schools are full service operations with athletic programs, arts programs, weekend programs, sometimes school six days a week.

If I were an international parent, I’d begin with these questions:

  • Where is the school located?
  • Who is in charge of my student’s safety and well being?
  • How often are trips to cities, or other areas available?
  • What kinds of student life programs are public schools developing for their international students?
  • Does the school/district have a formal student life program?
  • Does the school/district have a formal international student program?
  • Does the school/district have an international student advisor with whom we and our student can speak and who will work with the student in school?
  • How will we interact with host family?
  • What kind of college placement office does the school operate? Is it staffed by a college placement professional?
  • Does the school offer college test preparation programs?
  • What is the school’s college placement record?
  • What is the school’s record in college placement?

You can see where my questions go.

Much of what gives richness to school life occurs beyond the classroom. Boarding schools are adept at creating and cultivating these experiences and have a long history doing so- well.

If I were an international family being wooed by a public school system that recently added a boarding program, I’d start my research by asking some questions. Yes, the public school education with a home stay option may be cheaper, but it also may lack some the programs that make a sound boarding school education.

Brian Fisher

A product of both private and public education, Brian Fisher served as a teacher, coach, dorm parent, and administrator at three different boarding schools. Brian also fills the role of Director of Development at Wolfeboro, The Summer Boarding School, in NH along with being a partner at AdmissionsQuest.

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