by Carla Occaso
MONTPELIER — Some schools are grumbling about dwindling student numbers and upwardly spiralling costs, while others are actively working to increase enrollment.
One such school is our own Montpelier High School thanks to the work of science and engineering teacher Anne Watson. Watson spoke at a recent Rotary Club of Montpelier meeting to present her efforts on attracting students from other countries to Montpelier High School. It all started at a year-end faculty party in 2015, Watson said, with staff lamenting about how the budget had been defeated. “We said, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could get more kids here?’ We were at our lowest enrollment at that point.” The conversation led to the idea of opening the doors to students outside Montpelier and even outside the country. Then she spoke with a representative at the Vermont College of Fine Arts about possibly boarding excess students. “They were excited about the idea,” she said.
So Watson ran it past Montpelier Public Schools superintendent Brian Ricca who encouraged further exploration on the matter. Watson then applied for and received a $100,000 Rowland Fellowship to support the effort. The Rowland Foundation provides money for “the Rowland Fellow to implement a vision to transform an aspect of the school, which will positively impact its culture and climate.”
The money, provided in installments, covered the cost of a long-term substitute teacher while Watson pursued recruitment. It also paid for her travel and conferences. Watson went to Thailand and then to Spain, Germany, Norway and Iceland. While traveling she networked with other recruiters and got the word out among their networks. She also connected with other Vermont and New England schools that bring in boarding students, including Lyndon Institute and St. Johnsbury Academy, she told those at The Rotary Club audience.
Finally, Watson got the school to partner with four recruiting agencies that try to attract students from all over the world. This led to the first student who has applied and been accepted to Montpelier High School next school year.
Watson provided the following email after the Rotary Club presentation — when there had yet to be any applicants — because the first student came on the scene as a result of her efforts:
“On Feb. 9, I received an email from one of the recruiting agencies we work with saying that we had an application from a student. I read through the student’s application and scheduled a time for us to have a Skype interview. This student, who is from China, said that he’s very outgoing, energetic and independent, and that really came through in his interview. His English was good. I found it pretty easy to talk with him. I think he’ll be a great fit for our community. We sent him an acceptance letter the next day.”
Watson said the application deadline is May 31, so more may apply. “It’s encouraging to see this program start to take off. It feels like a noteworthy moment that’s worth celebrating,” Watson wrote.
In an email to the school board, Watson further shared some information on the potential student, “When we asked him ‘Why Montpelier?’ he said he wanted to spend time on the East Coast, and he saw that our area was beautiful, so beautiful that he had to come here. In his written application, one of the questions asked, “What do you intend to do to make friends?” His answer: “Be kind.”
The program is not planning on using dormitory housing in its initial phase. Watson, on behalf of potential incoming students, is seeking community members who would be willing to open their homes to those who are accepted into this program next school year.