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Chinese program delayed by U.S. Homeland Security

Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro does not expect the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to approve the district's Chinese boarding school program in time to implement it next year, she told the School Board Monday.

"I'm not optimistic about it for next year," she said. "It's looking more and more likely that it's something we're going to do in the 2012-13 school year."

A Homeland Security special investigator met with Di Chiro Monday to do a background check of district officials and tour Ashland High School, she said.

District officials had hoped to enroll 25 Chinese students, paying $25,000 each, in the high school next academic year, enabling it to become the first public school in the state to charge tuition to international students.

Investigator Robert Manes told Di Chiro he will submit a report on the school this week, but government officials could take up to 16 weeks to process the district's application.

"Once that's submitted, then it just goes through the bureaucratic process," she said. "We'll just have to wait."

The district can't begin recruiting students for the program until it receives clearance from the federal department to issue paperwork to the Chinese students that will enable them to receive visas.

Chinese students are typically recruited between January and April for study abroad programs, Di Chiro said.

"After that, it's really too late to recruit students," she said.

Board member Keith Massie asked Di Chiro to consider recruiting students for the second half of the coming school year. Di Chiro said that she believes few Chinese students would be interested in a half-year program, because it would interrupt two of their academic terms in China.

"I think it would be difficult to market it in that way," she said. "If it interrupts two of their terms, I don't think it would work for the students."

The board unanimously approved the program last month in the hopes it would begin next school year.

The district is modeling its Chinese program after one at St. Mary's School in Medford implemented last fall.

The district expects to contract with the Cambridge Institute of Chinese Business Research, the same firm St. Mary's used to successfully recruit students, Di Chiro said. The recruitment fees will be paid by the participating families, not the district, she said.

The students, who would be high school juniors and approximately 16 years old, would live in Southern Oregon University dorms and enroll in regular Ashland High School classes as well as in specialized English classes.

The program could bring in about $178,750 in the first year, said Jill Turner, the district's business manager.

The district would receive about $625,000 in tuition, but would need to spend about $446,000 to run the program, she said.

Each student would pay $25,000, which would include food, housing, health insurance and instructional fees. St. Mary's is able to charge more — $40,000 per student — because it is a private school, Di Chiro said.

About $100,000 of the proceeds from the program would go toward implementing the high school's redesign, Di Chiro said. The remaining amount would go into the district's general fund balance and could limit the district's needs for making budget cuts, if the state's funding for education continues to decrease.

Di Chiro, who also had to take a training course on issuing visas last weekend, said she believes the meeting with the Homeland Security investigator went well.

"There was nothing that was too overwhelming and I think that we did fine," she said. "I have to assume that the report will be positive."

She said the federal government wanted to ensure the school could accommodate 25 Chinese students — and that the program wasn't fabricated to sneak foreigners into the country.

"I think the main reason for a site visit is to make sure that the school actually exists — that no one's creating a dummy school to allow people to get into the country and then disperse," she said.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.