A Belgium exchange student’s opportunity to earn a high school diploma is on hold awaiting Kinston High School Principal Danny Branch Jr. to approve the student’s enrollment, according to the host family and the agency overseeing the international study program.
Branch, who received the student’s acceptance papers more than two weeks ago, told The Eagle Friday he is not sure he is going to sign the documents necessary for the student to enroll in school through a foreign exchange program. Branch’s approval must happen by Friday, Aug. 31, a deadline set by the U.S. State Department.
“Once I have talked with my superiors, I will determine that. It hasn’t been completely denied yet, I just haven’t signed it,” Branch said.
However, Brenda Randall, the regional manager for the Cultural Academic Student Exchange program, said Branch told her Wednesday he is not planning to accept the application due to a previous bad experience with another exchange student.
“Finally, this week, the principal returned my call and was apologizing because he thought the district had informed us that they would not be able to accept him,” Randall said.
“He said they got into a real tiff and the kid had to be moved, it was a girl, to another host family.” She added that Branch “didn’t want to deal with it” again.
Branch confirmed Friday that he had experienced problems in the past with a foreign exchange program.
“He (Branch) won’t give us a chance…I’ve been with this company 34 years, and we handle our stuff in a professional manner,” Randall said. “I’ve never been turned down by a principal before because they’ve had a bad experience.”
The student has passed all state department requirements, according to his case manager Joanna Carrisal. His host family has also passed background and home checks.
“His grades are fine, academics are fine, mental status is fine, they’ve basically put a stop to this young man coming into the U.S. and spend his last year of high school here,” Carrisal said. “I understand if he had an experience with a prior student, but why condemn everyone in this group because of that bad experience?”
Jason Sewall, whose family is ready to host the student, said the family is now “in dire straits” trying to get him to Kinston. He said if the Belgium student is not on a plane to the United States by Aug. 31, the student will not be able to participate in the program, and, because of his chosen degree path, will not be able to earn a diploma in his home country.
“It’s pretty imperative. It’s a process to get into this program in the first place. It’s a whole background check. It’s not something that’s willy-nilly,” Sewall said. “We’re trying to get some edge on the school to reconsider or relook.”
Sewall said he has been trying to meet with Branch and Coffee County School Superintendent Kevin Killingsworth, but neither will return his calls. A message to Killingworth’s office by The Eagle was not returned.
“Our family is a military family. We’ve traveled the world, we’ve been foster parents, and we’ve always been interested in the exchange program. I think it would bring a lot to that student, to the students here and also to our family,” Sewall said. “I think it would be something great for the community. He speaks Dutch and French; he can bring cultural enlightenment for the students.
“We’re really upset the principal turned it off just because he’s had a bad experience in the past.”
The Sewalls and their case manager have sought the student’s placement in other Coffee County schools with no success, as of Friday afternoon. A high school in the Covington County district also turned down the student’s placement since the Sewalls were not zoned for its system.
“It was odd for us because the school put it off on the central office. They shuffled me around and wouldn’t give me an answer,” Sewall said.
Coffee County School Board President Brian McLeod said Friday he had just learned of the issue directly from the Sewalls.
Kinston High School is one of four schools in the Coffee County School District. It usually has around 500 students in K-12.
Branch became the principal of Kinston High School in 2018. He was previously the principal at Samson Middle School in Geneva County.