Tiny Town Recruits Students Worldwide
Published: June 12, 2011
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
When Clark Hults was hired to be the school superintendent here in 2006, Newcomb was just another dying mining town in the Adirondacks North Country.
The population had dropped to 477 from a high of 1,500 in the 1980s. Young people who could get out, did; the median age was 55. Enrollment in the Newcomb Central School District — actually a single brick building along Route 28N — was at an all-time low, 55 students from prekindergarten to 12th grade. And George H. Canon, the town supervisor, feared the worst: “If the school died, the town would lose its purpose.” The school system, with 35 jobs, is Newcomb’s biggest employer.
Then Mr. Hults, known as Skip (who is also principal, assistant principal and van driver, and who answers the phones when Pam Bush, the receptionist, steps away) had a bright idea. America is known around the world for its education system, he reasoned. Newcomb needed a niche to stand apart from other dying towns. Why not bring in students from all over the world and give the local economy a much-needed boost?
On its face, it sounded preposterous.
But in the last four years, 30 students from 19 countries (including Iraq, Vietnam, Russia, Israel and Lebanon) have spent a year studying in Newcomb, of all places. This, in turn, has attracted students from surrounding districts, who, as Mr. Hults put it, want something more from a school than an all-Caucasian experience. Enrollment has climbed to 85 and is expected to hit 100 next year.
It does take a while for foreign students to acclimate. When Manon Vernette, 19, of France, learned her parents had signed her up for a New York school, she was thinking “Empire State Building.” Then she did a Google Earth search. “It was all trees,” she said. “I said, ‘What the heck, where do you go shopping?’ ” When they told her there was no cellphone service, she wept.
A year later, she is glad she came. With a senior class of four students, she found it easy to get extra help from teachers. She and her boyfriend, Lukas Marra, 17, a sophomore, no longer need Google Translate to express their love.
Ms. Vernette likes the rope swing at Mill Creek; she likes jumping off the Santanoni Bridge into Lake Belden. Last week, she saw a mother and baby moose standing along Route 28N.
Of course, even in Newcomb, not everything is perfect. “It snowed in May,” she recalled. “ I said, ‘What the heck?’ ” June is black fly month in the Adirondacks, and Ms. Vernette said, “What the heck, time to go.”
Foreign students pay $8,000 for the year. Half goes to the host family, half to the school district. If they pass all the necessary state Regents tests next week, they earn a New York high school diploma. Mr. Hults has also created a program that allows his students to earn college credits. The foreign students generate little extra state revenue, but costs are also minimal, since no extra staff members are needed.
“Nobody is doing what Skip is doing,” said Carl Springer, an American in Thailand whose agency, Asiamerica, places 600 foreign high school students a year in the United States — mostly at private schools. “Newcomb is one of the most affordable,” he said in an interview via Skype. “A typical private school is $25,000.”
There are more big plans ahead for little Newcomb. Next fall Mr. Hults expects to have his largest group yet, 12 foreign students. “We’re working on getting two from Ethiopia,” he said. On Friday, he conducted an admissions interview with a boy in Russia, using Skype. In Thailand, Mr. Springer is working to line up investors to build a 50-bed dormitory in Newcomb.
If that happens, Mr. Hults plans to raise tuition to $20,000, which would add $1 million to the district’s $5 million budget.
Word has spread through the North Country. Sterling T. Goodspeed is town supervisor of nearby Johnsburg, but he and his wife, Susan, pulled their son Taylor out of school there and transferred him to Newcomb. They feared Taylor was growing up narrow-minded. "If a boy took art or music they'd call him gay," Ms. Goodspeed said.
At Newcomb this year, Taylor was a lead in the school play.
The Goodspeeds are housing a Vietnamese student, Quan Luu. In Katherine Larkin’s history class, Taylor and Quan debated the Vietnam War. Quan said reports of torture at the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton were exaggerated.
“It makes history exciting,” Ms. Larkin said.
The boys are now friends. Taylor gives Quan a hard time about how Vietnamese people eat dogs; Quan gives the Goodspeed’s dog, Rusty, a big hug and says, “You look delicious.”
All middle and high school students spend a month working on a research paper. Four years ago, Arcane Huang, from China, wrote his on Tiananmen Square. “He didn’t know about all the deaths,” Ms. Larkin said. “They don’t teach that in China.”
The other Vietnamese student this year, Anh Pham, is living with the family of Charles Minke, a retired photographer who did four tours with the Navy in Vietnam. “Needless to say, we have interesting conversations,” he said. “I think we’ve both learned a lot. I tell Anh, Vietnam is the only country we’ve gone to war with that hasn’t sent an automobile back.”
The foreign students were surprised by the sophistication of the technology at the little school. Newcomb is located within Adirondack State Park. As compensation for keeping the area forever wild, the state provides much of the revenue to the local schools. Homeowners here pay an average of just $700 in property taxes a year. Even so, Newcomb has interactive teaching displays known as Smart Boards in the classrooms, a computer for every student and the latest teleconferencing equipment to enable distance learning with bigger districts.
“I was surprised,” Ms. Vernette said. “There’s more than at my school in France.”
Still, as much as the foreign students have liked living in the near-wild, they look forward to returning to dependable cellphone service. They’ve seen what Taylor Goodspeed goes through.
“I went around town with my phone, experimenting,” he explained. “I was walking down the driveway to go up on the roof and see if I got a signal, and by accident, I realized I could get one bar if I sat on a lawn chair at the bottom of the driveway.”
Word spread quickly. “People come by to sit in the lawn chair and use their cellphones,” Taylor said. “Some people pull up in cars.”
Alas, even in Newcomb, not everything is perfect.