Montgomery Co. schools revise rules on foreign exchange students

After having announced that most Montgomery County high schools would be closed to foreign exchange students for the next school year, Maryland’s largest school system has backtracked a bit.

Spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala told WTOP Friday that, after school officials “had heard from community members and families” who host exchange students, most high schools in the county will be allowed to take up to five foreign exchange students each.

The exceptions are Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Winston Churchill and Walt Whitman high schools, which will remain closed to foreign students; Walter Johnson High School will take two. Onijala said these schools were the most overcrowded in the system.

This applies to the upcoming school year; after that, Onijala said, the school system will take a look at the regulations involving foreign exchange students and make any other necessary changes going forward.

The problem was “severe overcrowding,” and Onijala said that problem is still there.

“We understand how important this program is, and we certainly want to welcome foreign exchange students,” she said, “… but we’re faced with the reality that many of our schools are over capacity.”

She said that, up until the last couple of years, the school system was growing at a rate of 2,500 students a year, and school construction couldn’t keep up. That meant lots of portable classrooms in trailers and other temporary structures, which Onijala said wasn’t conducive to productive learning.

“Our desire and our goal is to provide students with an environment that they can learn and thrive, and a comfortable environment while they’re doing so, but … we’re unable to keep up in terms of building new schools.”

The new rules mean more total slots for foreign students in the system than Montgomery County has had in recent years — 36 last year, 32 the year before that and 39 the year before that.

“We now have the capacity because we’re spreading them out,” Onijala said.

The original ruling was that county high schools would not accept foreign exchange students except at Magruder, Damascus, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Seneca Valley, Sherwood, Springbrook and Watkins Mill high schools. Onijala said the objections from the community centered around the difficulties that foreign students would have attending schools near the homes they were being hosted in.

“We believe in the value of this program and we certainly want to welcome exchange students to our district,” Onijala said. “We found a good compromise for the upcoming school year.”

WTOP’s John Aaron contributed to this report.

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