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Newcomb's high school and middle school eats lunch together(Photos:  Brian Mann)
Newcomb's high school and middle school eats lunch together(Photos: Brian Mann)

A village school in the Adirondacks goes global to survive

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Public schools in the North Country have been closing one-by-one for decades. It's a heartbreaking event for small towns.

But dwindling populations and rising costs have forced districts to consolidate and bus their kids long distances to bigger schools.

Incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo has indicated that he wants more districts to merge, and the state has already cut education funding.

The entire Newcomb school district has fewer than a hundred kids.

But as Brian Mann reports, the community is fighting for survival by trying to attract international students to fill its empty classrooms.

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Skip Hults hangs a new flag for each country that sends a student to Newcomb school

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It’s mid-day and thirty-five kids are crowded around tables, talking and laughing. It looks like one of those big overstuffed American classrooms that we all complain about.  But it turns out this isn’t one class – or even one grade. This is Newcomb’s entire high school AND middle school combined.

 "You know I’m the first to admit that we are under-utilized," says district superintendent Skip Hults.  "The only thing that we are lacking in our building is students."

Hults gives me a tour of the school’s state of the art facilities – computer rooms, a big performance space and a laboratory where a handful of kids are doing experiments.

Because of New York pays state property tax on all the state forest land in this area, Newcomb actually has plenty of money. 

But most of the classrooms are empty.  Hults says when he took this job, the future looked pretty grim.

"As I started going out five years, I just saw a trend where these numbers were just continually decreasing and decreasing," he said. 

Newcomb is incredibly remote.  The Hudson River gets its start as a mountain stream a few miles away.  The entire town has fewer than 400 people. 

 The mine closed in the 1970s and town supervisor George Canon says losing the school would be a final blow.

"Oh, it’s your identity," he argued.  "The school is your identity – to lose your school is to lose your identity as a town and we would fight to hold that no matter what."

The school had already cut staff to the bare minimum, even merging some grades together. So Hults decided four years ago to go looking for a fresh crop of kids far beyond this valley. 

He began marketing the school overseas in the same way that you might market a high dollar American prep school.

"We have more computers than we do students.  We have teacher-to-student ratios that you will only find in the finest of private schools."

His search worked, turning up students like Manon Vernette.  "When I saw Newcomb on Google Earth, I only saw only woods!" she laughed.

Vernette is 18 years old from Lille France.  She wanted to learn English and live in America and a student placement service suggested that she try Newcomb.

The price was great, only around $7,000 dollars a year, room and board included.  But she admits that when she first arrived she was dismayed.

"I start to cry," she said, adding that at first she felt lonely.  "But it's okay now.  It’s really different but it’s like a big family, so that’s why I like to be here.

 It turns out Vernette’s reaction is pretty common.

 "When they arrive it’s like culture shock when they hit Newcomb," said Linda Montaine, director of the school’s foreign student program.

She works with the kids and with the host families who house them in exchange for a small stipend.

"They think New York and of course when they think New York they think the city and this is nothing like it.  So when they get here and their cell phone doesn’t work they think ‘Where have I landed?’  But by the time they leave it’s family and there are many tears shed and many of them have come back and many of them intend to come back yet again."

Quan Luu is seventeen years old from Hanoi, Vietnam.  He says the small-town culture has helped him to make connections fast.

"They are very friendly and they help me a lot with my homework, and with communicating and socializing," he said.

This semester, Newcomb has nine international students, from Vietnam, France, Russia, and Vietnam. 

 That’s enough to boost the high school’s enrollment by 25 percent.  It also made the school more diverse and even sort of – cosmopolitan.   . 

 Caitlin Yandon is thirteen and grew up here.  She says she loves her school, but things used to be kind of claustrophobic.

"Sometimes it gets annoying to just have to be with just the same thing all the time," she said.  "Sometimes you want to branch off and know other people."

But these cultural negotiations can be tricky.  Kevin Bolan serves on Newcomb’s school board and heads the committee that oversees the foreign student program.  He has hosted international kids himself.

"Well, there was one student who really didn’t like America. There were times when you said, well then, why did you come here.  And they said, well it’s better in my country or we do it this way in my country…so we were trying to get them to be more open-minded."

Newcomb is working to improve its orientation program to help with some of that tension.  They’ve also made changes to improve the academic qualifications of their foreign recruits. 

Despite those wrinkles, Bolan says he thinks the program demonstrates that this is one school that shouldn’t be on the chopping block. 

"This is the hub of the community, so what we've tried to do is rather than worry about consolidation, we've tried to make our school the best.  No one would even think about closing us down or making us move."

The district hopes to add some sort of dormitory next year, to reduce stress on host families — and so the number of foreign students can grow. 

 A school in Millinocket Maine is trying to develop a similar program, recruiting students from China.

 Superintendent Skip Hults says this formula might work for other small schools in the North Country that have great facilities and great eachers but need more kids.

"I believe, most rural schools being under-utilized, really can take additional students at very minimal cost," he argued.

The next step, Hults says, is lobbying to change American visa rules so his foreign students can stay in Newcomb for more than a year.

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