Rob Porkka travels the world to bring people to Red Deer.
Over the last decade, he’s had increasing success. And today, Red Deer classrooms are more international and diverse because of his and others’ work.
Exchange student programs have existed for decades, allowing young Canadians to spend time in high school in another country, with a foreigner reciprocating the experience in this country. Much newer, though, is the proliferation of fee-paying international students in Canadian elementary, middle and high schools.
Porkka helped to start the Red Deer Public School Division’s international student program in 2002.
“There were agencies out there that were looking to place international students in schools. They’d be out there looking for a tuition-free placement and a volunteer homestay family.
“Schools were accepting them because they thought it was great to have a student from Germany or Mexico in their schools, but we were finding out that these so-called non-profit agencies were still charging the kids $15,000 for a tuition-free placement and a volunteer homestay family. I just thought that wasn’t right,” he said.
The program in the division started with eight students, stabilized at around 40 for a few years, and has jumped as high as about 110 students in one school year. This year, the division is hosting about 75 students, from France, Germany, Czech Republic, China, Japan, Vietnam, Brazil and Mexico.
Some of those students stay for only one semester but others may stay for multiple years. The fees charged to international students are going up next year, to $10,900 for a year’s tuition and $7,500 for 10 months of homestay accommodation. With other fees added on, the total cost tops $20,000.
Those fees are not much different from those charged to international students attending Canadian universities. At Red Deer College, international students pay tuition fees three times higher than Canadian students.
Porkka, who heads a national association committed to increasing studying opportunities for foreign students in Canada, said revenue generation is not the main objective of international programs, though the funds the division receives do allow for it to provide some extra services that regular provincial funding would not allow for.
“Certainly I would say most school districts are doing it to expose our kids to kids from around the world so that they can think about developing some international or cross-cultural skills themselves that employers are going to look for,” said Porkka.
Half of the funds generated through tuition fees go directly to schools for education delivery, said Porrka, while the rest supports other division initiatives to do with international education, such as Red Deer Public’s Spanish bilingual elementary program.
A provincial international education handbook suggests leftover funds could be used to hire an international program co-ordinator or to establish scholarships to allow Alberta students to study abroad.
Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division entered the fray a few years after its public counterpart. Its program has grown to take in around 40 international students.
The division has agreements with agents around the world to help bring students to Central Alberta, and program manager Rick Foret travels the world attending education fairs where he and Porkka often have booths displaying ‘Red Deer’ in big letters right next to each other.
He said the division gets more applications every year than it can accept, often due to not having enough local homestay partners. The division has students from Slovakia, Hong Kong and Vietnam this year, but its biggest market is Latin America, where Catholicism predominates.
“Our primary draw is having a Catholic Christian program. Our largest market is Mexico. … We have to make sure they understand what we do stand for and what we have in our schools,” said Foret.
Foret said the division’s program — which carries near-identical fees to Red Deer Public’s program — is run to be cost-neutral, with some of the tuition money funding advertising of the division and trips to recruitment fairs.
In both divisions, the students coming over from foreign nations are getting younger, with Red Deer Catholic hosting 12 middle school international students, and Red Deer Public even accepting a few elementary pupils.
“They’re coming with their parents typically if they’re in elementary school. … They will set up in an apartment while their kids go to school. That’s particularly from Korea we’ve had that. It’s quite an expense … but, you know, we forget that we have it pretty good here and that English is a ticket to success wherever you live,” said Porkka.
Other Central Alberta school divisions have also started up international programs. Chinook’s Edge School Division has 40 foreign students in its schools this year, many of whom are paying tuition.
Ray Hoppins, associate superintendent, system services, said the division’s program is small compared to those of the Red Deer-based divisions, with Chinook’s Edge depending more on agencies to recruit students to its schools.
He said the importation of students has benefited schools, communities, and students both foreign and domestic.
“In Central Alberta, it is very refreshing to have students from other countries,” he said.
Wild Rose School Division developed its program in 2006, travelling overseas to market the division and attracted students from South Korea to come learn in its rural schools.
But the small, rural division faced too many challenges to keep the program going.
“Because we just didn’t have the numbers, we couldn’t give the students the support that they really needed. We had some difficulty finding billets too,” said Tom Sperling, district administrator, program services.
“We couldn’t put our best foot forward with it, so we have decided to not follow up on that, and stick with what we do better, which is educating our own students,” he said.
Clearview School Division runs a small international education program in Stettler, and Wolf Creek School Division has a policy for international students as well.