ELECTION: School board candidates talk about international students

School District 69's International Student Program has been a hot topic of discussion the past three years

International students have been a hot topic in School District 69, so The NEWS asked school board candidates for their perspective.

When Kwalikum Secondary School faced closure in 2011, bringing in more tuition-paying international students was a common idea for saving the school. More recently, the Vancouver based private investment company Wetegrity has been working with the district on a proposed international academy on the former Parksville Elementary site.

Candidate Willow Bloomquist, a young mother in her second run for a board seat, said she likes the international student program. “It’s a great program that I feel benefits the local student body and the district as a whole… and makes the district a richer environment.” She cautioned against seeing it as a Band-Aid solution to bigger funding issues.

“I feel an intense focus on that might not be the best. Yes, part of the board’s responsibility is to produce extra money for the district,” she said, but they have to be careful to focus on current students and “make sure they’re in a happy and supportive environment.”

“I really don’t like the idea of putting any age students in a dorm-type situation,” she said.

Admitting she doesn’t have the depth of detailed knowledge of the current trustees, coming from the outside, she cautioned against moving to a whole new model for the new school, suggesting that “once you start changing things it might lead to other changes, it could just open a whole can of worms.”

She suggested that if it was a financial success the government could decide to pull back other funding, or find ways to tax away any benefit.

Fellow candidate John Hildebrandt, a long-time, active parent advisory council and community volunteer, agreed that “international students are a revenue generator, which is part of the district’s business model now, if you can generate money then we should look at the options.”

And he also agreed that any big changes should be “careful and cautious, with proper public consultation.” He said big changes “could overwhelm the local students, change the whole character of the district and detract from the experience of our own students.”

Again wanting it to be clear that coming from the outside he doesn’t know all the details yet, he said the board has been making some good moves, “developing relationships and thinking outside the box,” and that “any avenue for revenue generation should be explored, but we have to move carefully.”

Candidate Elaine Young, with nearly twenty years in public education as a teacher and counsellor, agreed that caution would be the best approach to the “really complex issue of international students which have a lot of pluses and minuses.”

She said having worked with international students and refugees over the years she’s seen how they “could bring economic and social gain to the district because they pay more to be here and, socially, because it broadens the diversity of the district, which are both very positive.”

“At the same time there are real concerns about ensuring the proper support is in place,” pointing out that a lot of it depends on the types of students who come and their level of language skills.

The youngest candidate, 20-year-old Jacob Gair, a 14 year Qualicum Beach resident and current political science and history major at VIU, agreed the international students “are an important source of income.”

He suggested that things like the standalone international academy might be a great way for the district to hold onto and even make money from the recently closed elementary school sites.

“There are a lot of open schools and it seems best to put them to use,” he said but cautioned that “it seems the idea is for international students to meet and mix with the local students, so putting them on their own might defeat the purpose.”

Gair was a student at Kwalikum Secondary during the closure fears and said that while there were a fair bit of international students, “there is room for more.”

He said there was a lot of mingling, but teachers, students groups and sports teams could be more active in integrating them.

Board incumbent Julie Austin agreed with the benefits of the ISP and said this district has abetter balance than most, with students form a wide variety of countries, improving the cultural exchange with local students and each other.

She said the academy proposal has plans for integrating those students with the rest of the district, including potentially housing some local students in the residences.

But she also cautioned that they “have to be cognizant and aware of not letting the (ISP) get too big, we have to make sure the needs of all the students are being met.”

An all-candidate’s forum for school trustees will be hosted by the District Parent Advisory Council at 7 p.m., Monday, November 3 in the Oceanside Elementary School gym.

Jane Williams, who was previously a trustee for 12 years, said “international programs are important to school districts from both a diversity point of view and financially.”

“In a district like Qualicum, which does not have a great deal of ethnic diversity, international students give our students an opportunity to learn about other cultures and to learn how important education is to the visiting students and their families,” she said, but cautions that “financial benefits cannot always be counted on to save a district in financial difficulty – something similar to a SARS outbreak could be devastating to a district which is too reliant on international student dollars.”

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