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Mt. Lebanon School District might add international students to fortify budget

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Mt. Lebanon School District might expand a program in which international students pay nearly $17,000 a year in tuition to attend Mt. Lebanon High School — a program officials hope will help to fund next school year's budget.

Assistant Superintendent Ron Davis proposed enrolling as many as 10 students a year from other countries through the F-1 visa program. Students can apply to attend classes in an American school, and the school provides them the paperwork they need to get a one-year educational visa from their consulates. The district has two such students this year.

“We've had people who live in the community with relatives in other countries they wanted to bring over, or people with business relationships in other countries who want to bring over their clients' children,” Davis said.

The district would work at no cost with Sweden-based Educatius International to market openings in the high school to international students, whom Educatius would help place with host families if necessary, Davis said.

The students or their families would pay $16,967 in tuition for one year, which school board President Elaine Cappucci said would net the district an estimated $160,000 in revenue next year.

That boost in revenue was one of several measures the board discussed on Tuesday night before accepting the $87.92 million proposed budget for the 2014-15 school year. The initial budget had a $2.6 million shortfall. It now is balanced because of a $750,000 transferred from the district's reserves and a 0.54-mill property tax increase.

The board and staff will consider other cuts or revenue measures, and board members might suggest amendments before a final vote on May 19.

F-1 visa students are different from traditional “foreign exchange” students, who get a J-1 visa and do not pay tuition. They often are students whose families want them to benefit from an American education or want to improve their chances of acceptance into an American college or university.

The Department of Homeland Security lists Mt. Lebanon, West Allegheny, Beaver Area and Quaker Valley school districts as the Pittsburgh area public school districts capable of certifying and accepting F-1 visa students.

Visa rules allow students to spend one year in public schools or multiple years in private or parochial schools.

The tuition rates for Pennsylvania public schools are based on each district's per-pupil cost. Quaker Valley School District's tuition for visa students is about $14,000 per year, said district assistant superintendent Heidi Ondek.

Quaker Valley is in its second year of accepting visa students, she said. Two are enrolled. Five have applied for next school year.

“There's a lot of matchmaking,” Ondek said. “I spend time on Skype with students, either over there or while they're enrolled in parochial schools.”

Beaver Area schools charge about $8,600 a year, the same as its standard per-pupil cost or charter school reimbursement. The district has had about five F-1 visa students during the past three years, said Assistant Superintendent Carrie Rowe. She planned to meet soon with a Chinese company to explore bringing more F-1 and J-1 visa students to the area from Beijing, she said.

Lauren Martin, the principal at Seton-La Salle Catholic High School in Mt. Lebanon, said her school has been accepting F-1 visa students for more than 10 years, usually with an average of about 30 in the school during any academic year.

Seton-La Salle's tuition rate is lower than Mt. Lebanon's, at about $10,500 a year for international students.

The benefit to the school comes more from the perspectives of other cultures that the international students bring, she said.

“We don't price it so we make money off it,” Martin said. “International students usually require more resources, like ESL (English as a second language) programming.”

Educatius International doesn't work with any other Pennsylvania-area public schools, but Mary Villano, a retired principal and coordinator of the foreign exchange program in Arlington High School in Arlington, Mass., said the agency helped them coordinate recruiting and working with visa students starting in the 2008-09 school year.

Arlington, a district about 10 miles outside of Boston, usually accepts 25 to 30 visa students a year at a tuition rate slightly higher than the regular per-pupil cost of education, because the visa students require extra services such as help with class selection, college counseling or waivers to participate in athletics, Villano said.

That funding is a small boost to their budget, but the students help fill out advanced courses that might not have enough local students to justify scheduling a class, she said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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