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CALLING HUNTINGTON HOME: Barbara Igel, left, of Berlin, Germany, checks her e-mail as Andrea Fernanades of San Paulo, Brazil, looks on. The two are among 13 exchange students at Huntington High School this year. (Baker City Herald photo).
CALLING HUNTINGTON HOME: Barbara Igel, left, of Berlin, Germany, checks her e-mail as Andrea Fernanades of San Paulo, Brazil, looks on. The two are among 13 exchange students at Huntington High School this year. (Baker City Herald photo).

The Observer continues a series of stories today on how finances and declining enrollment are making it difficult for some rural schools in Oregon to stay open.

By Chris Collins

Baker City Herald

HUNTINGTON There are no school teams in Finland, and exchange student Toumas Penttila has never played or even watched a game of football before arriving this summer in Huntington.

I dont even know what the positions are, he said.

But the 17-year-old from Tampere, Finland who lists parachuting, fishing and computers as his hobbies is suiting up with the Huntington-Harper eight-man football team this fall.

Penttila is one of 13 exchange students from such faraway places as Germany, Australia and Albania who were welcomed to Baker County recently with a potluck dinner featuring 100 pounds of Snake River catfish fillets.

The teen-agers are attending Huntington High School as it joins the ranks of small, isolated schools that are boarding exchange students to bolster their declining enrollments.

Over the past two years, the school districts enrollment has dropped from about 135 students to 92 in 2001-02 (including the exchange students), said Superintendent Gerald Hopkins.

The enrollment decline has left the district, and others like it across the state, strapped for cash because of the states funding formula, which provides Huntington with about $5,000 per student.

And while the school wont receive funding for the foreign exchange students until next year, their presence will help preserve the communitys school, Hopkins said. The boarding school will break even after about the third year and then is expected to bring in $25,000 to $30,000 per year, he said.

The district will lose money on the program during its first year of operation. Start-up costs totaled about $66,000, including the expense of converting a district-owned duplex to dorm rooms and hiring dorm supervisors.

As with the exchange program at Burnt River High School at Unity in far southern Baker County, where 10 exchange students are attending classes this year, the students were recruited to Huntington through the Academic Year in the U.S.A. (AYUSA) program.

The exchange students are required to play at least one sport during the year to help them fully appreciate what its like to attend a small, rural Oregon school, and to help fill their spare time, Hopkins said.

The extra numbers are a boon to the districts sports program. Last year, just six girls turned out for the schools volleyball team.

This year, because five of the seven girls from the exchange program are playing (many for the first time), there are about 15 on the team.

TUESDAY: The final story in the series. Long bus rides force students to spend the night in Crane.

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