As Elk County Catholic High School prepares to welcome a small group of Chinese students for the 2014-15 school year as part of its International Students Program, the school is seeking to meet with those interested in becoming host families.
Local families would host students in their homes for 10 months beginning in mid-August through the end of the school year. A $5,000 stipend is being offered to each family to compensate for meals, boarding, utilities, and transportation.
"We want to bring it out to the public so they have a better understanding as to what this program is," said Kim Schlimm, director of international students. "I think it can be appealing to a lot of families."
Schlimm emphasized the main component is that families must offer students a safe, nurturing environment and provide them with a room, a place to study, meals, transportation to and from school which can include riding the public school bus rather than taking and picking them up each day.
Host families must complete an application and contract and are subject to three background checks including fingerprint, child abuse history clearance and criminal history.
Interested families will be provided with a packet of frequently asked questions and what to expect of international students.
"The cost the students pay covers tuition, with the school receiving a substantial amount, medical insurance and all international fees which are all included in the program fee," Schlimm said.
They are also responsible for purchasing their own uniforms, any fees associated with extracurricular activities in which they choose to participate and personal expenses.
The school is expecting a group of no more than five international students for next year. In the past the school has hosted tow or three international students at one time.
Currently ECCHS is working with the International Exchange Alliance (IEA) whose representatives travel to China where they host an education exhibition to find students interested in studying in the U.S. The organization is currently interviewing students for ECC's program.
"We will try to match up those students that they find with the best interests of the host families that we can find here," Schlimm noted.
She added this is not something a family has to commit to immediately and are welcome to contact her if they are remotely interested.
"Sometimes when people hear about Chinese students coming in there is a wrong perception so we want to make sure it is understood that this is an exciting program," Schlimm said.
Students accepted into the program are required to take a TOEFL test which measures a person's ability to use and understand the English language at the university level. In addition they will undergo extensive interviews with the organization as well as Skype interviews with ECC personnel to assure they have enough English proficiency that they can comprehend the language.
"We'll be with them in front of a video screen, talking to them, interacting with them," said Elk County Catholic School System President Sam MacDonald. "We don't want to bring somebody in who can't succeed here or is going to be disruptive to the class so I think we're going to be in a situation where we set a pretty high standard for their English proficiency."
An information session is being planned for interested families where they will have the opportunity to ask questions with an IES representative and speak with former host families.
The school also hopes to offer Skype interviews between the student and their host family as a way to ease their transition.
"We're proud of who we are and we're going to be very open and honest about it. If somebody is interested in going to New York City, clearly that wouldn't be a good fit for us, so we're going to make sure for our sake and the kid's sake that it is a good fit," MacDonald said.
Elk County Catholic High School Principal Sandy Florig said IEA is seeking a school which offers a rural atmosphere as one of its selling points as opposed to New Jersey schools which they have established a liaison with.
According to Schlimm, after speaking with a former international exchange student, rural schools force students to learn the English language and become Americans whereas those attending school is larger cities may fall back on the Chinese culture already established there often using their native language to communicate. Chinese families have specifically expressed interest in areas similar to St. Marys.
Schlimm explained if a host family has travel plans they may request another host family house their student for the time they are away. Also if a host family is planning a vacation they may bring the student with them as the student is expected to pay their own way as to not burden the host family with additional costs.
"The host family should not think they never get a break," she said.
Also the Chinese families are permitted to fly their child home over holidays at their own cost.
Schlimm emphasized the school would like to hear from interested host families as soon as possible. This is partially due to a tight deadline on the processing of international paperwork which must go through the Diocese of Erie then be approved by the Chinese consulate.
An official new student/host family orientation will take place in August. Some of the students families may travel to the U.S. to meet the host family.
If a family is new to the ECCSS and has never hosted an international student Schlimm said it is in the best interest of everyone involved if a home inspection is conducted to ensure the living facilities are adequate for visiting students.
MacDonald said it would be ideal to have host families who already have a student enrolled in the school system. Parents are then familiar with how the school system works in terms of academics and are familiar with faculty and staff.
Other potential host families may include those who have hosted past international students or who have grown children that have moved out of the home.
Florig said ECCHS has hosted numerous international students in the past yet have not done so in the last three years due to the restructuring of the school system. Many of those students were from Vietnam and Thailand.
"We were very, very successful. We see all the benefits, the multiculturalism, the exposure to diversity," Florig said. "We've been exploring different agencies (to work with) for two years."
Schlimm stated some of the international students ECC has hosted in the past continue to stay in touch, come back to visit and attend area colleges.
Over the summer three former international students from Thailand stopped by ECC where they visited with Florig for several hours.
"These kids feel so comfortable," Florig said. "We were in the process of moving the middle school and they wanted to know all about what was going on and if they were relocating any of the facilities they were accustomed to."
Other schools within the Erie Diocese such as Mercyhurst Prep, Cathedral Prep and Villa Marie have also seen success with hosting international students.
ECC personnel have been in contact with those schools each of whom have shared details of their international student programs.
"It's learning about the day-to-day stuff and humanizing the people in a way that you can only do by having them live here for an extended period," MacDonald said.
One of the obvious benefits of the program is to increase the diversity and multicultural experience of ECCHS students in hopes of better preparing them when they move on to college.
"They experienced this before and liked having international students around," MacDonald said about the current ECC students' interest in the program. "That's a part of what's driving this."
MacDonald added that he believes this program is going to be very positive for ECC students.
"At no point in time will we ever exceed 5 percent of our student body population in terms of accepting international students because we don't want our kids to feel intimidated or overwhelmed," Florig said.
This is the equivalent of 14 students. She said the most they would likely host would be 10 to 12 international students.
"ECC is here for the local community. That's who we serve and this is a way we think to help serve that better. We don't want to have 50 kids there from this program," MacDonald said.
Although its not the primary driving force, the program is not costing ECCHS any money.
"It's a little bit of revenue that we can put toward other things, toward making the school more affordable for people who are from here and are Catholic and are coming for that reason," MacDonald said. "We'll expose them to that and it's worked other places and it's worked here."
Through Schlimm's research she found a typical Chinese students schedule runs from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., not including after-school homework. She added their education system is based on tests and memorization as well as social status as to what students are accepted into higher rated high schools and colleges.
Many international students from China find an adjustment period when attending U.S. schools as their day is done by 2:30 p.m. compared to early evening.
She said under current visas rules established by Homeland Security, private schools allow international students to stay longer, typically three to four years although there is no limit, however those attending a public school may only attend for one year.
"Our students really grasp on and accept the international students. They become the popular kids because the students just enjoy them so much," Schlimm said.
Many ECCHS seniors openly embrace their school's international students.
Jordan Lennox and Sophie Assalone said they enjoy learning about the students' different backgrounds and culture.s
"Just seeing how they interact within their day is probably different from ours, this would be cool to see what they do," Lennox said.
Brandon Schlimm added he would enjoy meeting someone from China.
"It would be great to spread ECC throughout the entire world, kind of like an international thing," said Zach Lovett.
Andrew Gerber expressed interest in hosting an international student and having the opportunity to
learn about their lifestyles.
"I think it's a great idea. You can learn about their culture, they'll learn about ours," said Ben Herbstritt.
Brady Garner noted "I think it's good because it's something different because not every school has foreign exchange students."
Those interested in acting as a host family are encouraged to contact Kim Schlimm at 814-834-7813 ext. 231 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.