‘More than just travel’: SBRSD takes global education program to the next levelMore Info
Sheffield — If all goes according to plan, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District will soon play a larger role in making the world a smaller place.
Mount Everett Regional School, which includes students in grades 7-12, already has a global education program that includes participation in the World Education Alliance and offers both short- and long-term exchanges, as well as educational travel.
But the program is entering a new phase, as last month the school committee set the tuition for a program that will bring a limited number of tuition-paying students from abroad to study at Mount Everett for a year. The goal is to recruit half a dozen international students for the first year and perhaps doubling that over the few years.
The school has a history of global outreach and of teachers leading students on frequent trips abroad. In the last six years, students and faculty from Mount Everett have taken trips to Italy, France, England, Ireland, Whales, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica, Quebec, Scotland, and Egypt. One young and energetic faculty member, however, wants to take it to the next level.
Fine Arts teacher Stephanie Graham is an avid traveler. She has been at Mount Everett since 2010 and led her first of many student trips abroad two years later. Graham made an appearance before the school committee in December, outlining a three-year plan for the school’s global education program and asking for the committee to approve a tuition of $18,500 per student, which is based in part on the district’s per-student costs. Graham said that number is on the high side because of the district’s low enrollment. Click here to view her presentation.
“Our tuition is very high because of low enrollment,” Graham told the school committee. “As we build the program and other programs in our district, this number will go down, as enrollment potentially goes up.”
The idea is to bring foreign students to enrich the experiences of current students at Mount Everett and, in the process, provide needed revenue to the school district and ultimately help boost district enrollments, which have been dropping throughout the county.
According to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, which is the first and smallest K-12 regional school district in the state, is expected to see its current enrollment of approximately 645 students plummet to 483 by 2028. During that same time, public school enrollments in Berkshire County are projected to drop from 15,224 to 12,744, or more than 18 percent.
That would leave Southern Berkshire with a little more than 150 students in the high school grades of 9-12, resulting in limited academic, athletic and extracurricular offerings and the likelihood of becoming unsustainable as a school district.
In an interview, Graham and Superintendent Beth Regulbuto insisted the primary goal of this new phase of the program was not to generate revenue but to expand the global education program and enrich the experience for foreign students, who would stay with host families that will receive a monthly stipend of $600 per student, and to improve the experience of existing students at Mount Everett as well.
“There’s a lot of conversation around what global education really is,” Graham said. “Is it sending students off on a trip or is it really learning about other cultures and really feeling a connection to other cultures?”
The district has long offered trips abroad and has partnered with sister schools overseas, thanks in no small measure to the hard work of former social studies teacher Mike Farmer, who left the school last year. Graham is clearly attempting to pick up where Farmer left off.
“I couldn’t be more proud and appreciative of Stephanie,” said Mount Everett Principal Glenn Devoti. “We’ve had our toe in the global education water for something like 15 years. They were good efforts but still a bit disjointed. We had sister schools in Cairo and Alexandria. Kids would travel there and to the Galapagos, but we always wanted to make the experience deeper than just travel.”
Farmer was one of the driving forces behind KIDmocracy, a joint effort between Mount Everett and an Egyptian human rights advocacy group. As part of KIDmocracy, a group of 13 Egyptian students toured the U.S. 11 years ago and spent a week in the Berkshires, staying with Mount Everett students and their families.
More recently, five Mount Everett students traveled to India, joining a group of 29 students from around the world last September. See the video below produced by Chris Graham, operations manager for Community Television for the Southern Berkshires and Graham’s husband.
The video details the performance and workshop. A documentary sharing the full story of the students’ experience in India is in progress and will be released later in 2019.
Graham has communicated with outside experts on how to set up programs for international students. She and Devoti traveled to Winsted, Connecticut, to visit the Gilbert School, where officials had established a program for students outside the U.S.
Unlike Mount Everett, Gilbert is a quasi-public endowed academy, a private school that accepts public school students whose towns pay an annual tuition for each pupil. The school was looking to boost sagging enrollment and generate revenue to make it less dependent on the town for operating funds.
Gilbert opened its program with about 25 students, all housed with host families. Eventually the school purchased a few homes and built a dormitory on campus for 52 male students. Most of the students came from China, with a smattering from countries such as Italy and France.
Last year, the school had 77 students in the program, with the goal of 100 for this year. But for the 2018-19 year, Gilbert officials could only find 43 qualified students, resulting in a poorer economy of scale and forcing the school’s trustees to borrow money to sustain the program and meet the payroll of the program’s director, admissions specialist and head of residential life.
With only half a dozen students expected in the first year, Graham said no one is talking about hiring at that scale for the Mount Everett program. Currently, she teaches a full load while acting as the coordinator of the existing program. That could change, however, when and if the tuition-paying foreign students arrive this fall. Southern Berkshire has no dormitories, though Graham said it’s possible portions of the yellow farmhouse at the southern end of the campus could be used to house students at some point in the future.
Gilbert officials said a change of policy and attitude on the part of the Chinese accounted for the decline in applicants to U.S schools and colleges: chiefly an emphasis by the current government on keeping strong students in China, along with the sense that American schools were not safe because of much-publicized mass shootings, and an impression that the Trump administration’s policies were unfriendly to those from abroad. In response, the Gilbert School subsequently partnered with a consulting firm to help it boost foreign enrollments.
Like Gilbert, Southern Berkshire would partner with a consultant to identify and recruit qualified students to enroll for a year at Mount Everett. Graham mentioned WEP-USA (World Education Program) and the Educatius Group as possibilities. Devoti said he would like to see the program grow to about 12 students over the next five years, with more possible in the out years.
But both Devoti and Graham emphasized that they do not want to rely heavily on one country for students — not only because Mount Everett should not put all its eggs in one basket but because too many students from one particular country might encourage them to stay together, speak their own language and avoid socializing with their American counterparts.
“We need to avoid the monoculture,” Devoti said. “We’re going to try to make it an eclectic group.”
It is important to note that those attending Southern Berkshire from abroad will not be part of a “foreign exchange” program. Tuition-paying foreign students in the U.S. are often mislabeled as “exchange students,” even though the host school isn’t sending American students back to the foreign countries “in exchange.”
Exchange programs are often handled through third parties such as the Rotary or Kiwanis clubs — although in noting the symbiotic nature of the tuition-paying program, Graham did offer this observation: “I don’t know if it necessarily means they change places. It could be an ‘exchange’ of cultures.”
Southern Berkshire’s neighbor to the north, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, is also SEVIS and F-1 certified and is looking to get its program off the ground soon. Five years ago, then-Principal Marianne Young and history teacher Ted Collins, who was doing an internship to become a licensed school administrator, filed the application for certification to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In the fall of 2014, Superintendent Peter Dillon traveled to China to learn more about its culture and educational policies. The trip was paid for The Confucius Institute, which is overseen by state-run Hanban University, so no taxpayer dollars were used. The institute’s mission is to promote Chinese language and culture.
One high school Dillon visited had 9,000 students. It was an eye-opening experience. The class size ranged from 50 to 60 and cooperative learning groups had about 20 students each. When a teacher walks into a classroom room, it is customary for students to stand up and applaud — for every teacher in every class.
Dillon said the program could become a revenue generator for Berkshire Hills, though perhaps not right away because there would be start-up costs associated with staffing needs.
“Part of the reason I went to China was to explore that,” Dillon said in an interview. “We would develop a plan for students who would pay tuition, generate enough revenue for a full-time bilingual instructor for them, and maybe there would be money available for stipends and a Mandarin teacher.”
Dillon noted that most private schools, especially the boarding schools, have over the last 20 years seen significant increases in the numbers foreign students they have admitted.
The tuition that had been discussed at Berkshire Hills was in the $20,000 to $25,000 range, or “half or a third of what going to a comparable boarding school” would cost, Dillon said.
The program could be implemented “with zero cost to taxpayers” and there could be a parallel path to economic development in that those new students’ families would no doubt spend money in the region.
One of the reasons the Berkshire Hills program has not yet gotten off the ground, Dillon said, is other matters have demanded the attention of the administration, faculty and staff. Chief among those is deciding how best to address the badly needed renovation of Monument Mountain Regional High School.
A pair of $50-million-plus proposals within a year of each other failed because of objections from voters in Great Barrington in 2013 and 2014. One school committee member from that town has called for a non-binding referendum on whether Southern Berkshire and Berkshire Hills should merge.
“We’re well positioned because we got certified,” said Dillon. “We might pilot something on a small scale next year — plenty of time to recruit students. Twenty to thirty students would be great for us. Our ducks are in a row and we’re ready to move forward.”
Graham outlined to the school committee the steps for the development of the program:
- Phase 1 (now): Establish the incoming international student program.
- Phase 2 (2019-20): Implement the international student program and establish a global education academy that could grant a special certificate to accompany a high-school diploma upon graduation.
- Phase 3 (2020-21): Launch a pilot program for the Mount Everett Global Experience and increase number of incoming international students.
Officials emphasized that the program should not be viewed as a cash cow.
“I think it’s a genuine commitment to creating diverse opportunities for our students,” Regulbuto said.
“The revenue stream is an ancillary benefit,” Devoti added. “If you create a dependency on that, you can get into some dangerous water. We want to create great cultural experience in our community.”