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Rural New York School Recruits Overseas Students

"To lose your school is to lose your identity as a town, and we would fight to hold that no matter what."

Dwindling populations in small towns have caused hundreds of districts to consolidate their schools and bus kids long distances to bigger schools.

But some remote communities are fighting back with a new idea to fill their empty classrooms: They're recruiting international students.

Newcomb Central School in New York is a pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school. It has a total of 33 high school students.

"I'm the first to admit that we are underutilized," Newcomb's school superintendent, Clark "Skip" Hults, says. "The only thing that we are lacking in our building is students."

A Shrinking Town

The town of Newcomb sits in a remote valley in the Adirondacks — a few miles from where the Hudson River gets its start as a mountain stream.

The town has been shrinking steadily since the 1970s, after a mine was closed.

The school district cut staff and merged whole grades. But with enrollment still dropping, Superintendent Hults made the decision to bring in students from overseas. Four years ago, he started advertising the school as a high-dollar American prep-school.

So far, the program has boosted the school's enrollment by 25 percent.

Manon Vernette came to Newcomb Central from Trets, France — a city with more than 1 million people. She says she wanted to learn English and live in America. She pays $7,000 a year, including room and board with a host family, to study at the school. But Vernette says she had no idea just how small and remote the town of Newcomb would be.

"When I saw Newcomb I just didn't know if I would be able to have real friends here," says Vernette. She says she cried at first because she felt lonely. But now Vernette says, "it's like a big family, so that's why I like to be here."

Not The New York Students Expect

This year there are nine foreign students from as far away as Russia and Vietnam enrolled at Newcomb Central School.

"When they arrive it's like culture shock," says Linda Montanye who supervises the international students. "Because they think New York and of course when they think New York they think the city, and this is nothing like it. So when they get here and their cell phone doesn't work they think 'Where have I landed?'" says Montanye.

There is no cell phone reception because of the mountains. And for many of the students, giving up texting and instant messaging with their friends back home is like being stranded on a desert island.

But Montanye says they adapt fast, going to school dances, playing on the basketball and softball teams and learning to ski and snowshoe.

"By the time they leave it's family and there are many tears shed and many of them have come back and many of them intend to come back yet again," say Montanye.

Local students like 13-year-old Caitlan Yandon says things could get claustrophobic before the foreign students arrived.

"Everyone's right up on you, making sure you do everything right. And there's a certain way that everything is right," says Yandon, "Because it's such a small school and everyone's pretty much the same."

But she says Newcomb Central isn't like that anymore. Now, Yandon and other local kids work side-by-side with students from Moscow and Paris.

Gateway To American Colleges

Anh Pham, a student from Hanoi, says studying in the small school is a stepping-stone to an American college and a good career.

"I already prepare my application to send to Adelphi [University] and Clarkson University," Pham says.

The school helps with English language training and has special tutors and college counseling.

Newcomb Town Supervisor George Canon says he hopes a bigger class of international recruits will replace the current foreign exchange students when they move on.

"To lose your school is to lose your identity as a town and we would fight to hold that no matter what," says Canon.

Newcomb plans to open a new dormitory next year. And in Millinocket, Maine, another public school is working to develop a similar program, hoping to recruit students from China.

Copyright 2020 NCPR. To see more, visit NCPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.
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