An exchange student from Belgium will be on a plane headed to Alabama on Friday, much to the delight of his host family in Kinston.
Enterprise High School accepted the student on short notice after Kinston High School Principal Danny Branch Jr. ultimately refused to sign acceptance papers to enroll him in the school for which the host family is zoned.
After weeks of anticipation, Theo Gerard was officially notified Thursday morning of his placement at the home of the Wildcats, and was able to purchase last-minute plane tickets to arrive in Dothan late Saturday.
“The family is ecstatic. As soon as I got approval from the school, I tried calling my wife but she couldn’t get to the phone. I called my children at home and told them to brush up on their French because Theo is coming,” Jason Sewall said.
Gerard might not have made it to the States it if weren’t for the persistence of his host family.
The Sewall family signed on with the Cultural Academic Student Exchange program, one of the largest exchange programs in the United States, months ago with the hope to host an exchange student in their home while he was enrolled in Kinston High School.
They passed background checks and home checks, and were approved to host the high school senior.
Papers were sent to Kinston High School over three weeks ago for the principal to sign, indicating that the school would accept and enroll the student.
But the papers weren’t returned to the family’s case manager, Joanna Carrisal, who reached out to the school and district officials on several occasions. Calls and messages were never returned to Carrisal or the Sewall family as of Thursday, Aug. 29.
Last week, Branch responded to inquiry from the CASE regional manager Brenda Randall that he was not planning to sign the documents because of a previous bad experience with an exchange student and her host family.
“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 told the Eagle in a previous article.
Calls to Branch’s and Coffee County Superintendent Kevin Killingsworth’s offices Thursday were not returned.
The lack of communication put Sewall’s family “in dire straits,” he said, as Gerard had to be “in the air” by Aug. 31, a deadline set by the U.S. State Department, to be able to participate in the program.
Because of Gerard’s chosen degree path, Gerard would have not been able to graduate in his home country without participating in the exchange program.
Randall said that in 34 years of working with CASE, she’s never had a school deny an exchange student.
Sewall said his family has been a loyal supporter of Kinston High School, though they have no children who go there, and is disappointed that Gerard was denied without reason by school officials.
“It’s kind of a sad situation that they won’t even come to the table with it,” he said, “I mean, just like the principal’s bad experience in the past, I’m not going to hold it against the school. I do wish I understood why they felt the way they did about the exchange program, and could have met with them to see what we could have done to mitigate the situation.”
Sewall said he remained hopeful that the district would change its mind about the program in the future as his family wants to continue to host exchange students, and Enterprise High School charges progressively increasing tuition for out-of-district students.
This year, the cost is $250 a year. Next year, it will be $500 and then $750.
“In retrospect, we would have liked to go in our town, but now he’s going to a bigger school with more opportunities,” he said. “Enterprise High School… they were very excited and we’re very excited as well.”
Enterprise High School Principal Brent Harrison said Gerard will be the first exchange student they’ve had at the school in a while, although they have had students from Europe in the past.
“We’re glad to help out, glad that our process worked for them. Central office looked at their records and everything checked out. I’m glad for the young man that he’ll be able to get his diploma from Belgium and get what he needs to graduate,” he said.