Mass. District Envisions Money in Foreign Exchange
Nate Levenson says he wants to bring more of the outside world to his suburban Boston district—and bring in more money along with it.
In an entrepreneurial twist on an established tradition, the first-year superintendent of the Arlington, Mass., school system has proposed recruiting high school students from Japan, and possibly other countries, not only as a form of cultural exchange, but also as a revenue-generating venture.
Students would most likely attend high school in Arlington for one year, at a cost of $8,000 to $12,000, Mr. Levenson estimates.
The district’s school board has given the superintendent approval to study the feasibility of the idea and add a staff member to coordinate such efforts, said board member Jeff Thielman. Mr. Levenson, along with a contingent of students and teachers, is planning a trip to Nagaokakyo, a city near Kyoto, Japan, to build ties with community and school leaders—and recruit.
The primary goal is to cultivate understanding of foreign cultures among the district’s 4,500 students, which will in turn help them compete in the global economy, the superintendent said. Generating revenue, he added, simply capitalizes on an existing tradition of student exchange.
“There is a lot of interest,” Mr. Levenson said. “Kids are already coming from around the world to study in the United States.”
For decades, U.S. schools and independent cultural organizations arranged foreign-exchange programs. Students typically pay a fee for those programs, while it is up to schools and other administrative groups to arrange housing and related logistics.
John Hishmeh, the executive director of the Council on Standards for International Educational Travel, in Alexandria, Va., said the Massachusetts district’s proposal is the first he has heard of with the stated purpose of generating revenue.
Foreign high school students typically arrive in the United States on F-1 or J-1 visas, he said. Nonprofit exchange programs typically use J-1 visas more often, while F-1 documents are more common for college-age students, he noted. Mr. Hishmeh believed Arlington officials could seek to have foreign students routed through either program.
The Global Market
Interest among foreign students in coming to the United States has typically far exceeded that of their American peers to head abroad, Mr. Hishmeh said. He had a mixed reaction to the Arlington schools’ proposal. While he applauded the district’s initiative and its interest in cross-cultural understanding, he also noted that such programs have traditionally not served as “money-making endeavors.”
Still, from a financial perspective, targeting students from nations such as Japan and Germany—another country Mr. Levenson mentioned as a possible source of students—makes sense, Mr. Hishmeh said. Japan ranked first and Germany fourth in a recent count of countries sending the most high school exchange students to the United States, he said.
Both countries have relatively large populations of middle- and upper-income parents who could afford to send their children abroad, Mr. Hishmeh added.
The Arlington district is trying to work through visa regulations and set up a process that would accommodate foreign visitors, Superintendent Levenson said. Those students would live with host families in the district, as is the case with most foreign-exchange programs.
And the extra revenue would help. The district, which has a yearly budget of about $35 million, has cut teaching positions and other jobs, foreign-language programs, and other services in recent years because of budgetary demands, Mr. Levenson said. Arlington is a mostly middle-income town of 42,000 residents.
The superintendent, 44, who joined the district six months ago, has experience in both the public and private sectors. He owned a crane-manufacturing company before leaving the business world for public education five years ago.
Overall reaction to the proposal from the Arlington community has been positive, though some have questioned the time the superintendent would have to devote to it, said Mr. Thielman, the school board member and a supporter of the venture.
“If it becomes a profit center for us, that’s wonderful,” Mr. Thielman said. “But that’s not what our primary intention should be. …We think it’s an opportunity to diversify our district and have an exchange of ideas with people in another country.”
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