By Stephanie Simon
REVILLO, South Dakota (Reuters) - There are just seven pairs of boots lined up outside the kindergarten classroom in this fading farm town. Just eight crayon drawings are taped to the wall outside second grade.
Enrollment is dropping at the Grant-Deuel School, as at so many rural schools. Fewer students means less state funding and a slow extinction.
But Superintendent Grant Vander Vorst has an improbable plan to save his little school on the prairie - by turning it into a magnet for wealthy foreign students. This year, 11 students from China, Thailand, Germany and elsewhere account for nearly 20% of high school enrollment, bringing cash and a welcome splash of diversity to an isolated patch of the Great Plains.
Grant-Deuel is not alone. Across the United States, public high schools in struggling small towns are putting their empty classroom seats up for sale.
In Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, and Lake Placid, New York, in Lavaca, Arkansas, and Millinocket, Maine, administrators are aggressively recruiting international students.
They're wooing well-off families in China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia and dozens of other countries, seeking teenagers who speak decent English, have a sense of adventure - and are willing to pay as much as $30,000 for a year in an American public school.
The end goal for foreign students: Admission to a U.S. college.
In an age of tenuous public funding, school districts "can't expect to sit back and survive, because the money is not going to be there. The taxpayers are not going to provide it," said Kenneth Smith, the superintendent in Millinocket, a remote town of 5,000 in central Maine.
Smith has three foreigners in his high school now, each paying $15,000 in tuition plus $11,000 to bunk with a local family. He hopes to bring in many more. "You've got to be imaginative," he said.
American colleges have long seen international students as a rich source of revenue. Nearly 725,000 foreign students enrolled at U.S. universities last year, a record high. Private boarding schools have also targeted wealthy foreigners for some time.
But few public school principals ever dreamed of charging tuition for Algebra I, U.S. History and the like - until states began making deep cuts to education budgets and plunging property values eroded local funding for schools.
Success in the international market is far from assured. Just 1,135 foreign students are currently paying tuition to attend a public high school. Still, that's a huge jump from the 309 enrolled five years ago, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
More than 1,000 public high schools have completed the federal certification process, including a site visit, that allows them to bring in tuition-paying foreigners.
In small schools with just 10 or 15 students per class, the marginal cost of adding a few more bodies is slim, notes Randy Richards, the superintendent in Lake Placid, New York.
"We're paying for the teachers already. We're paying for the electricity already," he said. So he considers the foreigners' tuition checks pure profit. Even just a handful of overseas students, paying $18,000 each, could bring in enough money to pay a few salaries or upgrade technology. "That's a lot of money for us," Richards said.
The rush to recruit abroad has raised some alarms.
"We've heard a lot of questions - how will it change our school culture?" said Shane Murray, superintendent of Jamestown Area School District in western Pennsylvania. He says some local parents fear their children will lose spots on sports teams or seats in honors classes to foreign students.
Murray is undaunted. He hopes to bring 40 foreign students, each paying $10,000 tuition, into the high school, which has a local enrollment of 270. That would make up for the $400,000 cut in state funding the district absorbed last year. It would save teacher jobs.
And, Murray says, it will build character in local kids, as they learn to work with, and compete against, students from other cultures. "Competition is good," he said.
Susan Flaccus, who sits on a school board for an impoverished swath of rural Massachusetts, has heard those arguments. But she opposes her district's effort to recruit international students to Mohawk Trail Regional High School.
"I don't like the feeling that our schools are for sale," Flaccus said. "It just doesn't feel right to me."
She fears districts that become dependent on foreign tuition will lose sight of their obligation as public schools to serve local kids first and foremost.
Flaccus frets, too, that small, rural public schools - many with only mediocre academic records - have no business charging such hefty tuition. "We may be fooling foreigners into thinking they are getting something that they are not," she said. "That doesn't seem honorable to me."
Some overseas recruiters acknowledge that foreign families know little about public high schools. "Asians have no clue where they're sending all their kids," said David Ho, who recruits students from across Asia for rural public schools in Pennsylvania.
Nonetheless, student visas are fairly easy to get; the United States does not impose any caps or quotas. And recruiters say public schools appeal to foreign families because they're often far cheaper than private boarding schools.
A year abroad, recruiters say, is not so much about the academics. It's seen as a chance to master English and build ties with American teachers who can serve as personal references on college applications.
Many American universities have had problems with foreign students who arrive ill-prepared and with only rudimentary English. But on the high school level, superintendents say they're largely getting qualified students.
"I've had 43 international students here in five years, and I've never once had a disciplinary or academic issue," said Skip Hults, the superintendent in the Adirondacks village of Newcomb, New York, and one of the first public school administrators to recruit abroad.
Foreign recruiters say they typically charge students $1,000 to $3,000 to place them in an American public school.
Some, like Educatius International, which is based in Sweden but employs recruiters worldwide, offer a fat catalog of schools to choose from. Founder Tom Ericsson says most kids focus on the more glamorous coastal destinations; schools in Florida and California are top picks.
Other recruiters tout rural districts -- some so remote they lack cell phone service -- as the best bet for students who want to immerse themselves in local culture. "I tell them it's a real American experience," said Suzanne Fox, who recruits Chinese students for public schools, mostly in rural New England.
Here in Revillo, where a sign generously pegs the population at 152, Superintendent Vander Vorst started small three years ago, welcoming two foreign students to his school on the far northeast hem of South Dakota. The next year, he brought in seven. He now has 11.
Grant-Deuel doesn't charge tuition but since the school gets about $5,000 in state funding for every child enrolled - whether they're from a local farm or Seoul, South Korea - the foreign students have boosted the school's revenue considerably. With the extra money, the district hired its first art teacher in years. There are plans to hire a business teacher next year.
The arrangement disturbs some taxpayer advocates outside the Grant-Deuel district. "We're already strapped for education funding, and now the state is paying to educate foreign students who come here just for that benefit?" said Dawn Pence, vice president of the South Dakota Tea Party Alliance in Rapid City, part of the loosely organized conservative Tea Party movement. "I have a real problem with that. It shortchanges our citizen students."
Like other superintendents who welcome foreign students, Vander Vorst says it's not all about the money.
As in many small Midwest communities, the population here is nearly all white; few people have traveled overseas. The foreign students have broadened horizons. Flags from their home nations line the high-school hall. One memorable night, they each cooked a favorite dish for the community. "Most of the foods you can't pronounce, but they sure do taste good," said Vander Vorst.
For the students, landing in such an isolated place was a shock. "I was kind of sad," said Pedro Moreno Martinez, a 16-year-old from Madrid.
Diet has been a challenge; the Asian students have struggled to get used to all the fried meats and local favorites like sour-cream-and-raisin pie. "I miss rice," moaned Davy Lin, 18, from Taiwan.
Still, the students have found their way. They jump right into the discussion of "The Red Badge of Courage" in English class. On a recent night, Oh Sawatpoon, from Thailand, and Joy Cheng, from Taiwan, both played forward for the junior varsity girls basketball team. Then they rushed to change into flouncy skirts and joined the cheerleading squad for the boys' game.
"They just fit in after a while," said Barrett Loehrer, 17, a local student.
Superintendent Vander Vorst is so pleased, he's raising the stakes. His guidance counselor heads to China this month to begin recruiting students who will pay tuition, perhaps $18,000 a year.
Some locals worry that bringing in too many foreigners will strain the community. The students need local mentors who can help them with homework and drive them to football games and take them shopping at Wal-Mart.
"Sometimes, you just want to sit on the couch," said Garry Harstad, who is hosting an international student and finds it both rewarding and wearying.
Yet others see no alternative to keep the school afloat.
Plus, they say, they take a quiet pride in recognizing that their frozen patch of South Dakota has something to offer all these bright, ambitious, worldly kids from far-off places.
"Our culture, our openness, our family time -- whatever it is, we have something they like," said Barb Hoyles, who connects the foreign students with host families. "We've got something to sell, and that's huge for us."
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Jonathan Weber, Martin Howell and Sandra Maler)