GROTON -- An association with a student-exchange program new to the area could prove beneficial for youngsters from foreign lands and local families as well as Groton-Dunstable Regional School District suffering from declining enrollment.
"This is not your typical exchange program, where some groups will bring international kids in and then send students from here to another country," said Jodi del Razo, regional manager for Sweden-based Educatius International. "It's not like that. Ours are tuition-paying international students, so they pay tuition into the school district. The tuition is based on the per-pupil cost set by the school district. The district can also be selective about who they admit to their schools. They're given portfolios of candidates to review, so they basically have to accept the students under the regular school application process. Some schools will even do a Skype interview to gauge a student's English skills. But overall, it's definitely a profit-making enterprise for the host schools, which often are facing layoffs and budget cuts, and this is just another way to bring in revenue to the school.
"Educatius is an organization that has been around for 10 years, but we just recently opened an office in Boston," continued del Razo. "We work with students from around the globe getting them into local schools. That said, Massachusetts is a pretty important state to us because students from around the world love coming here due to its many colleges and universities. For a lot of them, the goal is to come to college in the United States, so they figure if they attend high school here, they'll have a better chance of being accepted in an American college."
According to del Razo, Groton-Dunstable has 12 students assigned to the school, including those from Spain, France, Brazil, Norway, Italy, China and Vietnam, with some having been in residence since the start of the current school year and others due to arrive in January.
"Groton-Dunstable is getting such a great mix of countries," said del Razo of the exchange. "These kids are coming in and sharing their culture and their language with the community of Groton. Some of them will also befriend people here and offer opportunities for students here to visit Norway or some other country. At first, the visits will mean revenue for the school district, but later they could present other opportunities to host families."
All youngsters who qualify for the program must be between the ages of 14 and 18.
"The goal is to educate our students in the United States but also to bring culture and diversity into schools and communities," said del Razo. "We want to bring cultures together. That's an important piece of what we do. Students stay with host families who open their doors to them. The students become members of the family, which is an important part of it. They live together and become really close. It provides such a great experience for both families and students who often become lifelong friends. I was a host myself before I went to work for Educatius."
del Razo said Educatius keeps a master list of American high schools that its foreign students can review and choose from.
"Students that are with our program have school portfolios and students will look at all the schools we have and choose their top three," explained del Razo. "We then submit the student portfolios to the schools chosen by students. If the students are turned down by their first-choice school, their portfolios are then sent to their second choice."
Although del Razo did not say exactly how much money exchanges hands between Educatius and local schools, she did confirm that tuition paid by students equaled local per-pupil costs as well as room and board, with extra financing available for any unforeseen costs to host families.
"This has been our first year in Groton," del Razo said. "We are really excited that we have 12 students going to Groton-Dunstable already. That shows that the high school itself is a great school. You have to be certified in order to accept international students, and Groton-Dunstable received their approval kind of late in the game but were still able to get 12 students to pick the district. We're excited that we have a school like Groton to profile because it's going to be a high-demand school for us."
del Razo said foreign students who apply to Educatius are advised to seek out schools that offer a curriculum that comes closest to matching their interests, be it art, mathematics or technology.
But students' ambitions could never be met if it were not for the willingness of local families to open their homes to them. Still, not just any family is qualified to act as a host.
"We choose host families based on interviews and meeting with organizations like the local PTA," said del Razo. "We really like to choose families that are living in the community so that students can become part of both. All the host families have to go through an application process that includes a criminal background check on anyone over the age of 18 who is living in the home. We also do a home visit to talk to the family and tour their home. We also check references and when a family is chosen, we have a local coordinator who works with them, the students and the schools. So we're really big on supporting families and schools so that visiting students feel that they haven't been left alone. To remain in the program, visiting students must maintain a C average in school."
That said, Educatius is always on the lookout for families willing to accept students from abroad. Those interested are urged to contact del Razo either by phone at 617-543-8626 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Educatius is also looking to hire someone in the community to work part time as a local coordinator for the exchange program.
"The program is very personal to me because I host students myself," concluded del Razo. "The first student that I hosted was a girl from Italy who became a part of our family. When she returned to Italy, she determined to come back to Boston. This year, we picked her up at the airport and helped her move into her dorm room. She still spends Christmas and Easter with us. That's what it's all about. She's part of our family. It's emotional. I feel it's so special to have my kids explore different languages and cultures and to learn to accept others. It really is special and unique. Indirectly, it also provides us the opportunity to visit Italy and that's great too. Her parents don't speak a lick of English and we don't speak a lick of Italian. They come to visit us every year but we talk as though we're friends. It shows that this can be a very special experience. Although not all visitations are like that, when it works out that way, it's really special to families. That's why I started to work with Educatius -- because of that one girl. It's a great program."