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Lisbon school explores financial stability through foreign exchange student program

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LISBON — Officials at Lisbon Central School are looking into establishing a foreign-exchange-student program — an effort aimed at maintaining programs for local students and exposing them to cultural diversity.

In early April, Superintendent Erin E. Woods, high school Principal Eric S. Burke and business manager Wendy S. White visited the Newcomb Central School District, a rural school with less than 100 students in Essex County.

“They struggled with declining enrollment and sought out community support to begin accepting foreign students on a one-year, academic immigration visa,” Ms. Woods said in a news release. “This has proven to be extremely beneficial for their school district, giving the local students multicultural experiences and some financial stability to maintain programs.”

According to an article published June 12 in the New York Times, Newcomb in 2006 had seen its population drop to 477 from a high of 1,500 in the 1980s.

At the insistence of newly hired Superintendent Clark “Skip” Hults and despite an initial balking at the idea from the community, the school district established a program to recruit students worldwide. In the past five years, more than 40 students from more than 20 countries, including Iraq, Vietnam, Russia, Israel, Lebanon and Ethiopia, have spent a year studying in Newcomb.

After looking at what Newcomb did, the Lisbon Central School District is seeking community members interested in serving on an International Committee to determine interest in such a program. A meeting is slated for June 6 at 5 p.m. in the district board room. Any community member interested in learning more about the venture is welcome.

Potential students would be required to pass an English language screening to ensure their language skills are strong enough to be successful integrating into the high school classes and programs, and only high-achieving academic students would be accepted into the district, Ms. Woods said.

Board Vice President Blake P. Gendebien said Wednesday the entire board is excited about the possibility.

“I feel like it’s an opportunity to provide cultural diversity and, potentially, to help the district financially,” Mr. Gendebien said.

He said the district’s application was looked at favorably by U.S. immigration officials.

“It’s a bit of an honor to issue I-20s, or immigration visas,” he said. “Homeland Security gave us a positive preliminary report.”

At Newcomb, foreign students pay $8,000 for the year of study in the U.S., split evenly between the host family and the school district. If they pass all the necessary state Regents tests, they earn a New York high school diploma. The cost is considered very affordable, given that tuition for a foreign student at a typical private school is in the $25,000 range.

Mr. Gendebien said Lisbon will consider charging more for foreign students.

“These are wealthy families. The program may be perceived as inadequate if the cost is too low,” he said.

He said specific cost figures have not been discussed.

Board President Marc A. Montroy also spoke highly of the program’s potential, pointing to the financial boost it would give to the local economy.

“Take a look around. Most north country schools aren’t that culturally diverse,” he said. “Everyone is preaching outside-the-box thinking and exploring new revenue streams. This would be an asset for both the school and the students.”

While not a cure-all for the financial difficulties facing the district, Mr. Montroy said, the program could offer stability.

“It can only benefit the district,” he said.

More information about the certification process is online at the Department of Homeland Security’s website, www.ice.gov/sevis/i17/i17_3.htm#_Toc34 .

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