By next school year, as many as 100 exchange students may be attending Murrieta high schools as part of an agreement formalized Friday.
City and school district officials joined a group from Shanghai, China, for a signing ceremony Friday at the Murrieta Valley Unified School District offices.
The agreement is unique in that the district would receive tuition of $10,500 annually per student.
“This is pretty much new ground for school districts,” said Guy Romero, the district’s assistant superintendent of educational services.
Tower Bridge International, a new company that until now had only placed students in private preparatory schools on United States’ East Cost, will pay the students’ tuition.
The cost would cover all textbooks, teacher salaries, and provide access to co-curricular programs during the regular school year. Any programs that require fund-raising, such as athletics, clubs, band, choir, dance or drama, would need to be paid in addition.
City and school district officials began considering the international exchange during the spring when Tower Bridge representatives met at Murrieta Mesa High School.
Murrieta Mesa is one of the only in Riverside County that offers a Mandarin Chinese language course.
The exchange students—between 16 and 18 years old—would come from Gezhi High School of Shanghai. According to Romero, it is possibly one of the best high schools in the world.
The purpose of the partnership is to afford the Tower Bridge students—and possibly Murrieta students in future years—expanded access to Eastern and Western cultures, according to Romero.
It is also for teachers and administration to experience and gain greater understanding of similarities and differences of education in the two countries, Romero wrote in a report prepared for the school board.
Members of the board unanimously approved the agreement—which still needs to undergo final legal review—during a Sept. 27 meeting.
“When I first read this (report), I almost jumped for joy,” said Board Member Robin Crist. “It is invaluable…No risk, no reward."
Additionally, the city of Murrieta has a memorandum of understanding—a sort of sister city partnership—with Shaoxing County which is about 100 miles from Shanghai.
Murrieta Mayor Pro Tem Rick Gibbs traveled to Shaoxing to meet with government officials, and the city continues to explore investor relations with the Chinese.
“The Chinese are known for their math proficiency and that is something we need to learn from them,” Gibbs said, about the exchange program.
“We both have things to learn from one another. What the Chinese saw was an opportunity for their kids to learn English. This is an opportunity for us to watch how things are done in China.”
There was a complicated process the district underwent prior to reaching this point.
Romero and his staff have been busy working with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, as the district had to file an I-17 petition so the students may attend on F-1 visas.
ICE also had to conduct a security screening of the district’s educational services staff, Romero said.
The district is now awaiting final approval from ICE, as the F-1 visas are different from F-2 visas typically obtained for other exchange student programs, he said.
Then the Murrieta Police Department will be involved in issued identification cards to the students. The cards will have expiration dates.
Prior to Friday’s ceremony, 12 of the prospective exchange students visited Murrieta campuses last week, shadowing Murrieta students throughout the days. The students spent two days at Murrieta Mesa, one at Vista Murrieta and one at Murrieta Valley.
“It was neat to see how excited our students were to have the students from Gezhi High School and vice versa,” said Murrieta Valley Unified Superintendent Pat Kelley. “As soon as the adults got out of the way, the kids were great. They enjoyed just being with the other students. What you could see was the potential for a beautiful partnership, and instilling in our students on both sides of the Pacific Ocean the ability of learning how to work together with one another."
In January 2013, another group is expected to come for a 30-day stay—with up to 20 visiting each high school.
By August 2013, officials expect the students to begin a full school year. They will be staying with host families arranged by Tower Bridge.
Shanghai resident Francis Shen founded Tower Bridge, an offshoot of Shanghai Dian Zhi Ya Cultural Exchange which is part of Nacel Open Door in China. Nacel sends about 300 students a year on F-1 visa exchanges, and another 1,000 using F-2 visas.
“We did a little bit of student exchange program since 10 years ago through another association, so we have a lot of experience now,” Shen said Friday, outside Murrieta City Hall. “So we are starting to do it by ourselves and in this case we have had a very good chance to know the city of Murrieta. We hope we can bring a lot of students here.”
Real estate developer Merlyn Neilson, a former Murrieta resident, helped facilitate the agreement.
“It is a program we are trying to promote to help our children understand each other,” Neilson said.
In attendance at Friday’s ceremony was parent Tin Xie and his wife. The couple will be sending their daughter to Murrieta in January 2013 and then again perhaps for the academic year.
“She is learning English in school. The main purpose (of sending her) is to increase her English knowledge because we think that is important,” Xie told Patch, with the help of a translator.
“We want her to learn more Western culture. Of course we will miss her but this is part of her growing process and we think it is good for her,” Xie said.
“The mixing of the American culture and Chinese culture is very good. Because the cities in both countries, China and the U.S., are very friendly so we want to continue the friendship,” he said.
In January 2014, after the students have spent a semester in Murrieta, the school board will hear a status report.
“At that time we will assess it—see if it is something we want to continue,” Romero said.
Following a photo opportunity Friday outside Murrieta City Hall, officials gathered at the school district offices.
“Your students coming here to this region are going to allow you the opportunity to see what we believe is the best of America,” Murrieta Mayor Doug McAllister told the small crowd. “The best of the culture, the best of the weather, the best of everything America has to offer as well as the highest level of education—as far as we’re concerned—in the entire country. “
After the brief ceremony, McAllister told Patch that cross-cultural studies were among his favorite areas of research.
“When you engage other cultures, it expands you. It is really easy to become insular in your culture. This broadens your horizons and your ability to succeed,” McAllister said.