She hopes that high school principals and superintendents will recognize that, too.
Kinney has served as an International Community Coordinator for the Program of Academic Exchange (PAX) program for the past seven years. During that time, she has placed students from 27 different countries in Alabama’s high schools.
It’s placement season for the program, and while Kinney has had no problem finding Alabama families for students to live with, in recent years, she is experiencing increasing difficulty finding high schools in Alabama willing to enroll her students.
Kinney worries that is due in large part to school officials having a lack of understanding of both the quality of the students and the purpose of the program. That’s one reason why she works tirelessly to bring school officials on board and get them excited to enroll her students.
PAX – The Exchange Programs
The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel (CSIET), which sets standards for exchange programs, includes PAX as one of 21 programs in Alabama that meets their standards for international exchange programs.
PAX administers two State Department sponsored programs: the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program, and the Kennedy-Luger Youth Exchange and Study (YES) program. Kinney serves as cluster director for these two programs in central and north Alabama. Students compete for scholarships in these two programs, which is what sets them apart from other exchange student programs.
In addition to these programs, PAX works with other (non-State Department-sponsored) international exchange student programs to place students from other countries who wish to study in the United States as well as American students who wish to study abroad. In many cases, students and their families pay their own way in these types of programs.
The FLEX program includes students from countries that were part of the former Soviet Union.
The YES program was developed after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and brings students from countries with significant Muslim populations to the United States.
The State Department sponsors these two exchange programs for diplomatic purposes, according to Kinney. The goal is to improve relationships between Americans and the people of these countries, to advance mutual understanding, respect for diversity, leadership skills, and understanding of civil society, and to develop relationships with the future leaders within these countries.
Dan E. Davidson, President of American Councils for International Education, in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, spoke specifically about diplomatic exchange taking place with the FLEX and YES programs, stating these programs “have created real access to opportunity in countries where, in the past, such opportunities were available only to political elites. In that respect, they represent American values and ideals in action, rather than as words on a page. Moreover, exchange alumni take on increasingly important roles in their home countries in government, business, and the NGO community.” (Source: Bryn Mawr College news, April 30, 2015, where Davidson is Director of the Russian Language Institute)
Recognizing this, Kinney hopes to promote Alabama as a welcoming place and that her students will return to their countries with a different perspective of Alabama than the one they may find on Google.
Both of these programs are extremely competitive, drawing a large number of applicants and only awarded a small percentage with scholarships. The State Department funds scholarships for students to participate.
To receive a scholarship, students must apply a year to a year-and-a-half in advance. Aspiring students proceed through a multi-layered screening and selection process, with multiple agencies reviewing various pieces of a student’s application.
“It’s harder to get into these programs than it is to get into Harvard,” Kinney said. The FLEX web site states that one in fifty applicants are selected, while the YES web site indicates that around 900 YES students enter American high schools every year.
Students who earn scholarships then enroll in an American high school for a full academic year.
FLEX has a very active alumni group that publishes a newsletter, saturates social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest) with opportunities and good news about FLEX and offers grants to FLEX students to implement programs in their home countries.
According to a Fall 2014 newsletter posted on the FLEX web site, during the 2013-2014 school year, 802 FLEX students were enrolled in 650 schools across the country.
According to the YES web site: “YES students serve as ‘youth ambassadors’ of their home country, promoting mutual understanding by forming lasting relationships with their host families and communities. Participants live with a host family, attend an American high school, acquire leadership skills, and engage in activities to learn about U.S. society and values; they also help educate Americans about their home country and culture.”
Kinney is a strong believer in the FLEX and YES programs, both for the personal development of students and for diplomatic purposes. She is proud that her students study in America for an academic year and then return to their home countries and help improve the quality of their community’s lives.
Kinney points to success stories posted on Pinterest and in the Bradley Herald, the newsletter for FLEX alumni named for Senator Bill Bradley, considered the informal father of the FLEX program due to his support for the FREEDOM Support Act passed in 1992 that created the FLEX program.
Kinney shared that her students often win school-based awards. A fact confirmed by the recent Facebook post below.
Nearly all PAX students come to America with straight A’s, and are required to maintain a “C” average while enrolled in the American high school, something that Kinney says is rarely a problem.
While most placements are seamless, Kinney readily admits there are occasional difficulties. To minimize adjustment problems for exchange students, Kinney remains in constant contact with them, ensuring they are adapting well to Southern American culture.
She also helps them locate opportunities to complete the mandatory 100 hours of community service during the academic year, even taking them on multi-day volunteer journeys.
Difficulties with Enrollment
While Kinney placed ten students during the 2014-2015 school year in high schools across central and north Alabama, she conceded that many more families had agreed to serve as host families but were unable to do so because of enrollment barriers found in some local high schools.
One example of the difficulty she has encountered is when she approached a local school official about placing an international exchange student and the official was quick to respond “we have no ESL (English as a second language) services to offer”. She replied that her students don’t need ESL services as they are all fluent in English (some are fluent in three languages), something the school official apparently didn’t know.
Kinney cites a misunderstanding that some officials have of how exchange students could affect graduation rates. Foreign exchange students are specifically excluded from a high school’s graduation rate, as confirmed in this 2014 graduation rate training document from the Alabama State Department of Education.
It appears a lack of clear policies may contribute to some of these difficulties as well.
A sampling of board of education policy manuals across central Alabama revealed that very few school districts have detailed policies for enrolling international exchange students. In lieu of policies, some districts do have procedural guidelines.
In the sample are three central Alabama districts that were specific about how many exchange students could enroll each year.
- Trussville City Schools’ Code of Conduct allows for placement of up to five students at Hewitt-Trussville High School.
- Hoover City Schools allows for placement of up to four students at Hoover High School and up to two at Spain Park High School.
- Shelby County’s policy allows for a placement of up to four students at each high school.
The CSIET produced a model international exchange student policy that has been endorsed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Federation of State High School Associations, and American Association of School Administrators.
That policy recommends high schools strive for 1% of the total student population to be comprised of exchange students.
The policy also recommends schools allow for placements up to two weeks prior to the start of school.
Kinney indicated that one local school district has implemented a timeline for placement that her students cannot meet due to the way the FLEX and YES programs are structured. School officials in that district have not been willing to change the timeline, which effectively shuts her students out of that district entirely.
Whether school districts have a policy does not concern Kinney. She simply wishes districts would open their doors to her students rather than finding ways to keep them out.
Exchange Students Serve as Teachers, Too
Kinney believes one of the most valuable components of enrolling FLEX and YES students is the exposure that Alabama students gain by interacting with students. She notes that many school districts proclaim the desire to produce “global citizens”, yet seem slow to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll her students.
Kinney seeks to place exchange students who are eager to teach other kids about their home culture.
She believes the real value for all is in the exchange between her ambassadors and Alabama’s high school students and is certain that her ambassadors offer as much to American students as they will receive in return.
“It’s a wasted resource,” Kinney laments. She sees her student ambassadors as a “free resource that the State Department is offering to every school in the United States. These students are the cream of the crop of students from all over the world and can help teach (international) culture”.
Numbers of international exchange students are difficult to find.
The numbers in the maps below came from the 2013-2014 International Youth Exchange Statistics collected and published by CSIET. These numbers include all high school international exchange students placed by organizations that applied for CSIET approval. The numbers reflect students entering either through a J-1 or an F-1 visa. (Students in State Department-sponsored programs travel on J-1 visas. F-1 visas are issued for students who are funding their own travel.)
These numbers can include public and private schools. The year indicated is the fall of the school year, i.e., “2005” is the 2005-2006 school year.
This map depicts the percentage of exchange students of the high school population in the state. For example, during the 2013-2014 school year, international exchange students accounted for 0.14% of the total high school population in Alabama.
Does your school district open its doors to exchange students? Does it have a policy?