For years, Keenam “Kason” Park has helped dozens of private high schools across Massachusetts and the country recruit international students, mostly from China. He had a knack for placing students at Catholic schools, filling seats as their local enrollment declined and generating new revenue that kept some struggling schools solvent.
In return, Chinese students gained the opportunity to perfect their English and learn about American culture, hopefully solidifying an edge in the ever-hot race for admission to elite US colleges.
But a little more than a week ago, Park’s company, Eduboston, stunned the schools, students, and families it had been working with when it announced it would be abruptly closing up shop Sept. 30. The move came amid lawsuits, accusations of fraud, and an apparent mountain of debt.
Now, dozens of schools and more than 300 students in Massachusetts and across the country could be out hefty sums of money. Tuition bills are going unpaid, payments for students’ health insurance have ceased, and host families aren’t receiving their monthly stipends, even though the company collected tens of thousands of dollars from individual families to cover those expenditures.
And some schools are concerned Park may be preparing to skip town. His six-bedroom home in Weston is on the market for $2.75 million , and a lawsuit filed in Suffolk Superior Court last month by Cape Cod Academy in Osterville raised the prospect of Park leaving the country. Eduboston owes the academy $763,950 in tuition it collected from 20 students it recruited from China for this school year, the academy said in its lawsuit.
“Hopefully, Park is an honorable man who will not flee. Nevertheless he is the picture of flight risk: a foreign national with offshore accounts who had withheld funds in the past and who is sending his family out of the United States,” according to the lawsuit filed in September in Suffolk Superior Court, which described Park as a Korean national. “Should Park and the money disappear, [Cape Cod Academy] would be in peril.”
A judge subsequently placed strict spending limits on Eduboston and Park’s personal finances, and ordered any proceeds from the sale of the home to go toward covering the academy’s outstanding tuition bills.
Park, who declined to comment through his attorney, has been candid about his firm’s financial problems, inviting schools to a Sept. 19 meeting at a Marriott hotel in Newton where he shared detailed financial information — albeit only to those who signed nondisclosure agreements.
“Eduboston is undergoing a temporary, but serious, cash flow crisis, which is delaying our ability to make timely tuition payments, especially to those schools with whom we have enjoyed a long-standing and successful relationship,” Park wrote in the invitation. “I acknowledge the need to rectify past mistakes. But, I sincerely believe, and I hope you share this belief, that through my leadership, Eduboston has provided and will continue to provide the highest quality foreign exchange program of its kind in the country.”
One week later, Park informed the schools that he would be closing Eduboston, which is officially registered with the state as K&B Education Group, on Sept. 30. Panicked schools, students, and families quickly began to triage.
At least one student has turned to online crowdfunding. A 17-year-old junior from Korea said in an interview that he is one of 15 international students at a Catholic high school on the South Shore in this predicament. Most of the other students are from China, he said, and one is from Vietnam. He asked not to be named because he hasn’t received permission from his school to talk with the media.
The student said his family had given Eduboston more than $45,000 this year for tuition, stipends for his host family, and other fees. The school has waived the tuition, he said, but he still needs to pay $10,800 to his host family. The student said it had become awkward asking friends for help, and he waited days before making his online donation request public.
“It’s stressful,” he said. “The school is a victim, the host family is a victim, and we are a victim.”
At the Bancroft School in Worcester, 14 students from China enrolled this fall, but Eduboston has not paid any of the tuition it collected for this year. The amount is probably more than $600,000, according to Globe calculations.
“While this is a shocking and disappointing situation that has caused our school unforeseen financial challenges, our top priority is the care of our students,” Bancroft head of school Trey Cassidy said. “We will ensure they are cared for by well-qualified host families, receive an outstanding academic experience, and establish a lasting connection to our community while they remain students at Bancroft.”
A number of schools within the Archdiocese of Boston will probably be affected, spokesman Terrence Donilon said, but he did not specify which ones.
“Those schools have consulted with the Catholic Schools Office and are working with both of Eduboston and other organizations to try to help place students,” he said in a statement. “Given this is now a legal matter, we would reserve further comment at this time.”
For years, international students — especially from China — had been a burgeoning market for high schools seeking to reverse dwindling enrollment or diversify their campuses. Massachusetts is a top destination, and some local schools, such as Lexington Christian Academy , have added dormitory rooms for foreign students.
But after peaking in 2016 with nearly 81,981 international students at US secondary schools, enrollment has since dropped to 73,612 in 2018, according to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, a New York nonprofit.
The changing marketplace, in turn, has created a more competitive environment for recruiting companies, which many US schools rely on to enroll international students. Eduboston, for instance, had asked schools to sign exclusive recruiting agreements — an arrangement that Cape Cod Academy rebuffed, according to its lawsuit.
Some schools have banked too heavily on international students. Pope John XXIII High School in Everett, for instance, opened a dormitory a few years ago to help house its booming international student population instead of relying only on host families. But the contractor it hired to manage the dorm and perform other duties ran into financial problems that turned out to be the death knell for the school.
In January, the contractor abruptly disclosed that it was shuttering the dorm within 48 hours and the approximately 40 students needed to move out. Pope John XXIII administrators opted to operate the dorm at the school’s expense for another month, and the students eventually either moved in with host families or returned home.
The dorm fiasco, officials said, resulted in a $1 million-plus shortfall for Pope John XXIII that ultimately forced it to close in June. At the time, international students made up 25 percent of the 282 students.
The archdiocese last week declined to comment on the matter.
Financial problems have apparently plagued Eduboston for years. In an attempt to put the company on better financial footing, Park about four years ago turned to a longtime friend, Luke Choi, for help. Choi invested about $3 million in the business in exchange for an ownership stake, a leadership role, and other interests, according to a lawsuit Choi filed in California this summer.
To Choi, it sounded like a good investment: Park assured him the company had the potential to generate a net profit of $9,000 to $10,000 per student. Balance sheets showed annual income between $373,000 and $1.2 million, according to the lawsuit.
But unbeknownst to Choi, the lawsuit contends, Park had nearly bankrupted the company after taking out more than $3 million and investing it in risky stock options. He also owed a former owner and business partner $2 million.
Park, the lawsuit said, used Choi’s money to pay off debt and funneled some to other businesses he ran that Choi was not involved in. Park later disclosed to Choi the cash-flow problems and how he had used Choi’s money to remedy them, according to the suit.
In a cross complaint, Park argued the real problem behind the dispute was that Choi’s wife was upset about the investment and wanted the money back. Park said he agreed to pay back the money.
“Choi was extremely grateful to Park for his willingness to help Choi out during this time of personal crisis,” Park’s complaint said.
But Park fell behind on the payments, prompting Choi to file the lawsuit; meanwhile, Park is seeking to recoup $350,000 in interest payments he gave Choi on his investment.
Park has a history of financial problems, court records say. US marshals in 2014 seized his Aston Martin Virage luxury car, after he defaulted on a federal student loan more than a decade earlier. Park got his car back within days, writing two checks totalling $86,922.62 to cover the remaining principal, interest, and penalties.
Yet until recently, Eduboston showed few, if any, outward signs of financial stress. It was certified by the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, a membership organization based in Virginia that evaluates and certifies long-term international student exchange programs at the secondary level. The organization has certified more than 60 companies.
Part of the process entails companies submitting a 10-page application completed by a certified public accountant, including a copy of the company’s most recent financial audit or review.
“If a program is seen to be noncompliant, they are given corrective action, a conditional listing, or a denial of listing,” said Christopher Page, the organization’s executive director.
Two weeks ago, the organization revoked Eduboston’s certification.
Eduboston told schools, students, and host families in a letter announcing its closure that was obtained by the Globe that it had exhausted all options to stay in business, even after hiring turnaround professionals.
“Accordingly, our only option at this time is to liquidate the business and return to overseas parents as much of their prepaid tuition for 2020-2021 as we can,” the letter said. It also stated that as of Sept. 30, the company would no longer be able to pay host families or cover medical insurance for students, tuition to schools, or commissions owed to partner agencies, noting 339 students were affected.
A rival company, Cambridge Network, has meanwhile stepped into the fray. It is offering to cover the costs for host family stipends, medical insurance, and other services for the affected students — if they put down a deposit to retain its services for the next school year.
“Over the past week or so, we have put together what amounts to a rescue effort,” said Barbara Liang, senior vice president. “We do feel we have the responsibility to protect the integrity of this industry and protect those parents and students who have been affected.”
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.