By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — With a grim budget situation continuing to develop in Lewiston-Porter, officials are turning to other means for income. One of those places might be the district's foreign exchange program, if high school Principal Paul Casseri has his way.
Last month, Casseri completed a much-needed step in brining foreign students through Lew-Port's doors by formally becoming SEVP – Student Exchange Visitor Program – certified through United States Homeland Security.
Casseri said the certification allows him to jump through red tape getting students from their home countries to Lewiston.
"When students come to the U.S. for private schools, they usually come under an F visa," he said. "With this certification, I can now issue an I-20 form, which is the nonimmigrant student status form, so they can go to their visa office and apply for an F visa to come to the U.S."
The F visa, though, requires students to be tuition-paying, which Lew-Port has set a figure at. In the current school year, foreign students paid almost $8,700 to attend Lew-Port. Next year, with active recruitment in countries like China ongoing, the district is hoping to find five or six students in an effort to support the district's struggling general fund.
Getting started bringing more and more students to the school, Casseri's primary focus is in China. The Chinese market for students, he said, is ripe with families which have the liquid cash to send their children to the U.S. for education. And Casseri, who has spent many months in the communist country since taking over the district's high school, has all of the connections to make it possible.
In fact, he may end up traveling there before the end of the school year, he said, to recruit with some local ambassadors already overseas. It's one way to put some life into a district which is bleeding out financially and is suffering from chronic decreases in enrollment, he said.
"We've established this program here at Lew-Port and we see it as important to the overall makeup of this school," Casseri said. "This avenue could be huge for us, considering our declining enrollment and budgetary issues. Plus, this program promotes diversity. It'll be great for the Lew-Port community. I'm super excited about it. I'm excited about actively recruiting kids to come here."
The only hiccup in Casseri's plan appears to be a time limit on public entities like Lewiston-Porter keeping students enrolled. Under current guidelines, F visa students are only allowed to remain enrolled for one year, not the four-year figure private schools can provide families.
But a fix, Casseri said, may soon be going through the halls of congress, though nothing is certain yet.
If the district can find enough students to come overseas, it could eventually help fund the district's reverse program, which sends students to those countries for their own learning experiences. It's a program Superintendent Christopher Roser has recently proposed eliminating funding for as the district attempts to patchwork a 2013-14 budget together without needing to override the 4 percent tax levy threshold mandated by New York State's property tax cap.
So, if Roser's proposals are adopted by voters May 21, incoming students could help buoy the operating fund, but Lewiston and Porter residents couldn't send their children overseas through the district.
It's all about the changes, Roser said.
"It's going to be a little different," he said. "We are still a Confucius Institute school. There are a number of things that take place because of that designation. But opportunities for students to go to other countries, right now, that won't be taking place."
The Confucius Institute, organized through the University at Buffalo and the Chinese department Hanban, generates programs and opportunities for students to learn about Chinese culture. Lewiston-Porter currently has Wang Ying teaching language classes throughout the district's four schools and has hosted summer camps last year.
But any hope in using the foreign exchange income to fund exchange expenses is out of Roser's hands. All financial matters are handled by the school board and it'll be up to the seven-member group to determine what any money generated by Casseri's certification efforts will be used for.
"It's up to the board to determine," Roser said. "If we have a number of students come in, we may use it to fund those opportunities.
"I have some questions about it, but the board felt they wanted to go down this path. I like the opportunities for the kids, but I have to worry about all 2,100 of them in the district, not just a select few."Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.