West River frets over funding for Journey East

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BRATTLEBORO — School officials worry Journey East could go south in coming years if funding can't be found to sustain Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School's Sino-American cultural arts exchange program that has been offered for almost 20 years.

"I've been trying really hard to come up with other ways of funding," Jesse Riemenschneider, program director, said during a West River Modified Union Education District board meeting last week. "We're kind of at a little bit of a crossroads and wanted to let you know where Journey East was at."

Funding for Journey East initially had come via a Freeman Foundation grant as part of the University of Vermont's Asian Studies Outreach Program, she said, but that grant ran out about eight years ago.

Payments for Chinese tuition students have filled the funding gap but attracting them has become more difficult as competition grew with more schools offering spots.

"The other part is because we are public school, we can only offer visa for one year for them to attend Leland & Gray," Riemenschneider said. "So even if they absolutely love the school, we have to send them somewhere else after one year."

Principal Bob Thibault said the district could hire a grant writer to find funding or offer housing like some of the private schools do.

"We'll get one more cycle then there's not going to be the finances to support it unless something changes," he told the board.

The district has been paying about $31,000 into the program every year. But administrators are looking at a loss of about $40,000 coming biannually from the tuition students as "lost revenue," creating a deficit for running the program. And since the departure of the former program director, administrators are looking for another person to help run the program as Riemenschneider also teaches history at the school.

Superintendent Bill Anton said Journey East costs about $250,000 for the two-year cycle without a new hire. The subject came up just before the school board saw a draft budget for the next fiscal year presented by Windham Central Supervisory Union administration.

Riemenschneider said every other year, L&G sends 14 to 16 students to China, where they go around the country putting on performances they create and taking classes. The trip lasts the second semester of a school year.

In the off years, the Inner Mongolia Arts University stops at L&G while performing around Vermont and New England.

"We bring these people in, we take them into our homes," Riemenschneider said. "And that has been a simple sharing of culture for anyone who has hosted. It's a really interesting and awesome experience to have."

Performances also come to elementary schools within the WCSU.

Board member Emily Long, also a state representative for Windham-5, described herself as a "huge supporter" of Journey East. She wondered whether L&G could collaborate with regional schools to combine efforts and "find a path forward."

"It's been a fantastic program for our school and our students and our community," she said. "We were sort of cutting edge and other people started to jump into this and do it."

Thibault said he would love to see Journey East continue and called it "one of the things that keep us unique."

"We hate to dump it on you guys but it's a pretty big price tag," he told the board. "But there's a lot of benefit and it puts Leland & Gray on the map. It was project-based learning before there was project-based learning."

Journey East is used as a recruiting device to bring in tuition-paying students, said Thibault, who jokingly suggested a wealthy donor might help fill the funding gap.

"Come on, rich benefactors," board member Lindsey Bertram added later.

Board Chairman Joe Winrich said the program offers "an incredible experience" for students who travel to China as well as those who interact when the exchange students visit.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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