Rural Leader Buoys School With Foreign Students
School Superintendent and Principal Clark “Skip” Hults knew something had to change in 2006, when enrollment in his upstate New York school district dropped by two students.
That meant only 55 students remained in Newcomb Central School, the remote district’s sole prekindergarten-through-12th- grade school, and the school’s continued existence might be in jeopardy.
Another school might have considered consolidation. But that wasn’t a good option for Newcomb, nestled as it is in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains, where winters are harsh and mountain roads can be dangerous for school buses.
Hults, 57, came up with a different idea after talking with his brother, who lives in Australia: What if he recruited international high school students to his district? That was a major industry in Australia and other countries. Why wouldn’t it work in his rural school?
Since that epiphany, Hults has transformed the school, nearly doubling its enrollment to 105 and hosting 60 students over five years from 25 countries, including Serbia, China, Brazil, and Zimbabwe.
Recruiting tuition-paying international students has saved the school by bolstering its finances and population, and it’s changed its culture by exposing Newcomb students to diverse heritages and languages. It’s also redefined the meaning of “family” to the many residents who have hosted visiting international students.
“I believe this has the potential to become a rural norm,” Hults says. “It’s a win-win.”
How It Works
A former elementary school teacher and principal, Hults found his calling in education after working as a loan operations officer and a nonprofit business administrator. After spending 15 years in Arizona, Florida, and California, he and his wife returned in 2003 to the Adirondacks, where the school administrator’s family ties reach back three generations.
…[W]hen you change the culture, you have to go slow, you have to educate, and you have to explain what you’re doing and for what reasons. We started slow, and it became a cultural norm.
Hults was named Newcomb’s school superintendent in July 2006, and he realized shortly thereafter that the district couldn’t continue to lose students. A majority of the community agreed something had to be done, and Hults had few critics when he proposed the international- student program, according to Ed LaCourse, who’s taught mathematics for about 15 years at Newcomb Central.
“Skip could probably sell a lawnmower to someone in Antarctica,” LaCourse says. “He’s a very optimistic person, and he really sold the program well as far as all of the positive aspects.”
It’s not uncommon for high schools to host one or even a few international students, but Hults has taken that idea and done it en masse.
In its high school grades, the school has about 40 students; 18 are from other countries. That’s a significant number, given that the town has only about 200 families.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re turning students away,” Hults says.
Over the years, Hults has learned the differences between various types of visas, and he says the type of visa the district now requires enables it to receive tuition and accept host-family living expenses.
Newcomb has earned a good reputation among international students, and it sells itself with its location in the heart of a 6-million-acre park and its strong academics, Hults says.
Hults also has established relationships with more than 10 agencies that help find foreign students who want to come to his district.
The district requires students to have a conversational level of English-speaking proficiency to ensure they can succeed. Any lesser ability would negatively affect the classroom experience for local students, Hults says.
“If it weren’t benefiting our students, I wouldn’t do this program,” Hults explains. “It truly does benefit our students. It has opened their eyes. It has given them broad exposure to the world, and for the kids who come here, they remain a part of our community. I think they will forever.”
International students pay $4,500 annual tuition to attend the school, as well as a $4,500 housing allowance to the local families who host them. District officials receive application packets with photos and information about prospective students, and they choose whom they want.
Hults estimates the program will bring in about $250,000 in revenue this year, and that covers its expenses while contributing extra dollars to the district’s $3.9 million general operating budget.
Money aside, the program has addressed what Hults describes as a “complete and total lack of diversity” in the school, where most students are white and middle-class.
Sue Goodspeed, her husband, and their two sons lived in a town about 25 miles away, and the international-student program is one of the reasons they’ve since moved to Newcomb.
“It’s the best thing we could ever have done for either of them,” she says of her children.
She thought it would be good for her younger son, who is adopted from South Korea, to attend a school with more diversity, and the program would give both of her children the chance to meet students from across the world, she says.
The family has hosted four international students, two of whom are living with them now. One of the students they previously hosted planned to return for a Christmas visit last year.
“It has redefined and expanded our family,” Goodspeed says.”I love all the ones we’ve had; they’re like extended family.”
Hults’ effort to create the international-student program has earned him statewide and national recognition. He’s working with more than a dozen New York and Vermont school districts that want to replicate Newcomb’s program, and he’s speaking at the National School Boards Association conference in April.
He’s also been a key advocate for changing a federal law that prohibits international students from staying in American public high schools for more than one year; such students are allowed to stay in private schools as many years as they want.
Hults has teamed up with U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and David Little, the director of governmental relations for the New York State School Boards Association, to lobby on that issue.
“We’re in an era where we’re expecting our students to be able to compete on an international basis, and at the same time, our finances are minimizing their opportunities to accomplish this goal,” Little says. “This program has the unique ability to address both sides of that.”
The international-recruitment program is not Hults’ sole innovative idea.
Hults “is unique in that he’s not just looking to see what helps Newcomb, but he’s got these ideas that, if extrapolated, could help schools throughout the United States,” Little says.
Hults constantly thinks about ways to keep his school afloat and to grow the community so it becomes “home” to more people, he adds.
The school chief also has looked at the possibility of building a dormitory and recruiting urban students to the district, Little says. City students would have a different experience and the chance to, for example, compete on every sports team if they wanted—something that might be harder to do in a larger school.
Hults “truly believes in the value of this rural community and this rural experience that his kids get,” Little says.
LaCourse says Hults also has developed a program that will enable the district’s high school students to graduate with a two-year associate degree. That program has helped Hults attract nearby students to the school and increase enrollment, according to LaCourse.
“He’s a visionary squared.”