Olympics draw foreign students 

Lack of homestay families has School district worried

The 2010 Winter Olympics, which Vancouver and Whistler will host, are providing an unexpected bonus for the local school district.

The Games are generating unprecedented interest from overseas families who want to send their kids to school in Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor.

"The heightened interest in Whistler means that we are getting a lot of requests from Europe, mainly from Germany, but some from Italy and a few from Switzerland," said Sally Thompson Stacey, manager of International Education School District No. 48.

But there is a Catch 22 to this bonus, because unless the school district can find more Whistler families to take in the high school students it's unlikely the school board will be able to reap the benefit of Whistler’s growing notoriety.

"We are actively searching out homestays right now because this is just the beginning," said Thompson Stacey, who has had about eight calls in the last month from interested families.

"These (numbers) are just the extra calls that have come in the last month so over the next couple of years there are going to be more and more and unless we find homestays we are going to lose these students."

The school board has already accepted 10 new students for next year and five are on a wait list. Right now it only has homestays for seven of the students.

Whistler Secondary could take up to 20 students if homestay families could be found.

Most of the students who come are focused on the cultural experience, learning English and pursuing skiing, snowboarding and mountain biking.

The Hume family of Whistler currently has a Grade 11 student from Italy living with them.

"She is a ski racer competing at the FIS level," said Rick Hume, whose two sons also raced competitively.

"It is a responsibility but our experience so far has been good. The kids are screened… and you are going to get a high achieving person who is over here for the cultural experience.

"They are here to improve their English, which they will, and they are here to mostly ski, snowboard, and bike and just enjoy Whistler, the future site of the 2010 Olympics."

Thompson Stacey agrees families do take on quite a high level of responsibility but says the benefits are well worth it.

"Most of the families form really strong, long-lasting bonds with these students and I think it is a really good way for our local kids to start networking and learning about the global world," she said.

"I think it is a wonderful opportunity to a have a young person from another culture in the family. I think it is good for the children in that family to make a really good connection with someone from another culture, rather than just meeting them on the periphery as they would do on vacation."

Interested families do not need to have kids in the high school, in fact Thompson Stacey believes it is often easier if the homestay kids and the international students are not the same age. That way when the international student, who does not get academic credit for the year in Canada, decides to go skiing instead of doing homework there isn’t any friction between the kids.

Homestay families receive $900 a month to be part of the program. For that they are expected to provide a room, meals and family involvement for the students, who do speak English, as well as help with the school and with sports activities.

Students pay $12,000 for the full 10-month academic year, or $6,000 if they come for just half the year.

Most of the fees go to support schools in the district, though some is used to support costs associated with the program.

Homestays are visited by the school board and assessed for suitability and all members of the household must undergo a criminal records check.

Prospective international students are also closely checked.

Squamish has spent the last several years building its reputation as a destination for foreign students. Currently there are 182 international students in the Howe Sound School District. The majority of those, 100, are in the elementary program in Squamish.

There are eight homestay students in Whistler this year.

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