SWANTON – For attendees at Missisquoi Valley Union Middle/High School (MVU)’s summer school this year, the world might become just a little bit larger as the small-town school prepares for the arrival of Chinese students in the coming weeks.

MVU will be partnering with the Burlington-based Special Programs for International Relationships and Learning (SPIRAL) organization to bring students from Beijing and Shenzhen, China, to MVU’s summer school for two weeks, with the hope that the school – and its students – can foster connections overseas and introduce Chinese students to the United States.

“We’re very excited about this,” said Franklin Northwest Supervisory Union’s outgoing superintendent, Winton Goodrich. “There’s a lot of learning to be had here, both ways.”

MVU’s summer program with international students will bring 41 Chinese students, four Chinese teachers and two accompanying grandparents to Franklin County in July. Students will be living with American families at night and, during the day, participate in summer school activities or travel.

Those students will be spread between two weeks of summer school: 26 of those students attend from July 16 to July 27, and another 15 attend between July 21 and July 28.

During classes, students will be spending time with their American peers in different summer school settings. A couple days are set aside for visits to a Franklin County farm, a visit to an American college and stops at Church Street and University Mall in Burlington.

According to Goodrich, after Chinese students stay with a host family in the U.S., the children of host families could possibly travel to China the following year, an attempt to attract more host families while also exposing students from area middle and high schools – as long as the student is between 6th and 12th grade, they don’t necessarily need to attend MVU directly – to education in another country.

“They sweetened the deal after we got moving forward with this,” Goodrich said. “If a host family has Chinese students this summer for a week or two weeks… and during an immersion program in the fall and another in the spring, then one of their children – or both of their children – will get a free trip to China.”

Families do not have to have children in middle or high school to serve as a host, however.

As of Friday, only about half of the students had corresponding host families lined up. According to Carol Lizotte, the afterschool program director at MVU, host families don’t need to be students from MVU, and they’re hoping to attract middle and high school students from other area districts as well.

Goodrich, who recently returned from a visit to several schools in China, said the partnership comes at an important time for MVU, as he hopes international, tuition-paying enrollment can help offset a drop in local enrollment.

“The long-term impact will to eventually have tuition-paying students come along,” Goodrich said. “That’s one of our Act 46 strategies for dealing with declining enrollment.”

But while the initial impression might seem more utilitarian, Goodrich insists that turning MVU in a more global direction would be beneficial for MVU’s student body. Incoming students from China might be their first international experience, Goodrich noted.

“We have had some children who have been able to travel and experience things, and we have some folks that have had very few experiences,” Goodrich said. “So that’s really what education is about.”

The visit to a college is important, both for the Chinese students and the colleges themselves. Chinese students are increasingly filling out the ranks at American universities – in 2016, a study conducted by the Institute of International Education found that there were 33,275 degree-seeking Chinese students at American universities, accounting for 58 percent of all international degree-seeking university students.

American universities, meanwhile, have seen a steady decline in enrollment nationwide, according to 2017 data released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“I met with Jeb Spaulding, the Chancellor of Vermont State Colleges and Universities, and they are very interested in having students that come to high school for a year here to matriculate into a college, because they’re experiencing the same decline in enrollment that we are,” Goodrich said. “So from an economic development standpoint, that’s very good for Vermont.”

MVU reported in 2018 that there were declining enrollments at the middle and high school, but increased enrollments at MVU’s member schools in Highgate and Swanton hint at a coming improvement in enrollments.

Enrollment goals aside, Goodrich said he hoped that, by including Chinese students in MVU programming, the school would better prepare its students to be competitive in a global economy.

“We’re not trying to gerrymander society – we’re just trying to have some students have more worldly experiences,” Goodrich said. “They’re going to be going into jobs that are global, and they’re going to be competing against the best in the world.

“You might not be working in Swanton for the rest of your life. Some jobs are going to take you far, far away, or bring people from far, far away here.”

MVU partnering with SPIRAL comes at a time when the United States’ relationship with China is increasingly strained. Recently, President Donald Trump announced tariffs on aluminum and steel from China that inspired China to place its own tariffs on American goods. The corresponding tit-for-tat erections of trade barriers have since pushed the two nations toward a trade war.

Likewise, the two nations have become competitors for influence in Asia, as China continues to grow as a geopolitical power and challenge America’s traditional political influence in the region.

But academic exchanges and relationships fostered by organizations like MVU’s SPIRAL summer camp might be able to find a place to build a few bridges between the two countries, according to Goodrich, who said that it could offer families a different perspective than what they find in the media.

“People only know what they know, and they only know what they hear,” Goodrich said. “If you always hear the bad sides of what China is, and you don’t have any experience to balance that with, you’re missing a lot of opportunities.”

Families interested in hosting Chinese students this summer are asked to either check MVU’s website or speak with MVU’s Ashley Bowen, Renee Roddy or Carol Lizotte.