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Cultural exchange programs boost local school revenue

Schools throughout the Boston suburbs are opening seats in their classrooms to students from Brazil, China, Germany, and elsewhere who are willing to pay thousands of dollars for an American public school education.

Arlington, Marblehead, and Hopkinton have hosted tuition-paying international students, in some cases for the last five years. Communities including Natick, Avon, and Burlington plan to start accepting students in the coming months and are awaiting approval from the federal government to issue student visas. Newton’s School Committee recently gave the district permission to pilot a partnership with an international company that recruits students and sets up their stays.


Unlike traditional student-exchange programs in which foreign students come to the United States for several weeks to a year and study for free, often in return for allowing American students to attend their school, these new arrangements are set up to have local schools charge tuition. The annual fees are based on the district’s estimated per-pupil cost, and can run from $12,235 in Marblehead to nearly $16,600 in Newton.

Bringing foreign students to suburban schools adds diversity to classrooms, gives local children a global perspective, and creates a memorable experience for host families, whose costs are covered by the student. But school districts also acknowledge a strong financial motive to accept international students. The money these students pay help schools expand programs, such as language arts, when budgets are tight, district officials said.

“I’m not opposed to pulling in revenue,” said Kevin Meagher, Marblehead’s acting business manager. His school system will be taking five full-time international students starting in September. “We’re not in business for the sake of business, but if we have an open seat, we’re not averse to charging a student who is coming from another country,” he said.

Colleges have long pursued international students, who pay full tuition, to help offset the rising costs of higher education.


But Burlington High principal, Mark Sullivan, said he wasn’t aware of public schools accepting international students until recently. “It’s kind of a niche market,” he said.

Burlington is among the school districts waiting for approval from the Department of Homeland Security to accept the students. The district had hoped to have students in the school this fall, but it may be January or next fall before that’s possible, Sullivan said.

Newton Superintendent David Fleishman said the city’s two high schools will likely take five to seven international students in the coming year, in grades where the district has open seats. Tuition will go into the district’s English language learners program, he said.

“Our School Committee has charged us to be creative with revenue,” Fleishman said.

Depending on the capacity of their schools, districts accept a varying number of students. Arlington, for example, which has one of the more robust international programs in the region, can admit up to 25 foreign students, and Hopkinton can take about 14 students, while Avon, a smaller district south of Boston, has more limited space.

Avon realized “it would be taking very few students,’’ said Sharon Hansen, principal of Avon Middle-High School. “For a small district meeting two needs, bringing other cultures to our door and bringing some revenue, it’s a win-win.”

Avon is among the area districts that have turned to Educatius International Inc., which has offices in Boston, to handle their programs. Educatius markets the districts, recruits the students, and finds host families to board them. Tom Ericsson, the company’s founder, said Educatius placed between 150 and 200 students in Massachusetts schools last year.


Educatius doesn’t charge the district for its services, but the students and their families pay the company a fee, along with the school tuition. The total cost for families, including tuition and the stipend for the hosts, can be as much as $29,500, according to Ericsson.

Local school districts can also be selective about the students they admit. Schools are given portfolios of the candidates. Most of the students speak English and come from well-off families.

At Hopkinton High, assistant principal Ashoke Ghosh conducts Skype interviews with potential students to gauge their English skills. “The students we’ve received are high-caliber students,” Ghosh said.

Educatius has also been cooperative when a student had to be sent home because of a discipline issue, Ghosh said.

While some Hopkinton School Committee members were initially concerned that accepting international students would leave less room for local students in popular classes, such as Advanced Placement courses, that hasn’t happened, Ghosh said.

“No local student has been bumped out of a class because of an international student,” Ghosh said.

For the students, a year in the United States is a chance to experience a cultural exchange, improve their English skills, and, in some cases, to get a boost when applying for spots at American colleges.

Federica Cocco, of Italy, spent the past school year in Hopkinton.


“I decided to come to the US because it was my dream since I was a little girl,” Cocco wrote in an e-mail. “I wanted to go far from everything and everyone for a year, I thought that was something everyone who has the opportunity should do.”

Cocco returned home this summer, and is already making plans to go to college outside of Italy. She’ll be studying hotel management in Spain next year, she said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.