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I-Team: Foreign Students Paying To Attend Mass. High Schools

LEXINGTON (CBS) - A sharp rise in international high school students is a boon to many private and public schools. However, the I-Team found the large numbers have given rise to an industry of education middlemen, some of whom operate with little or no scrutiny.

Lexington High School is bursting at the seams, which is why a Craigslist ad seeking a homestay in Lexington was so confusing to Superintendent Mary Czajkowski.

"I was shocked, actually," she said after the I-Team brought it to her attention.

The ad was placed by a company called "Eastern America Steward Education Corp," looking for a host family for a Chinese student who needed a Lexington address to enroll in the high school.

"I had never heard of this company," Czajkowski said. "We have a very strict residency requirement."

The company's flashy website lists dozens of Massachusetts schools as partners, but several of those schools had never heard of them.

That's not a surprise to Jessica Vaughan from the Center for Immigration Studies. She's seen a proliferation of these education middlemen.

"Their business model is to recruit kids from overseas to pay big bucks to get into U.S. institutions," she said.

Business is booming. Nationally the number of foreign high school students seeking an F1 Student Visa has skyrocketed. Massachusetts is one of the most popular states. Since 2009 the number of students has quadrupled. From more than 1100 in 2009 to more than 5,000 in 2014.

A number of Massachusetts public schools do accept international students to fill open spots. Those students are required to pay tuition. Other public schools do not accept students who come to the district only to attend school.

Ann-Katrin Pfeuffer came to Newton from Germany to study this year. She is staying with a family her own family knows. She decided to study in the U.S. for the same reasons most students do.

"Language, knowledge, experience, new friends," she explained.

Ann-Katrin worked with the district and followed their programs to make it happen, filling out paperwork, paying tuition and applying for one of Newton's designated spots.

When done right, Jody Klein of Newton Public Schools says the district's international student presence is a big benefit.

"We enjoy our visiting students, our international students and they absolutely contribute to our overall culture in Newton," she told the I-Team.

The students also pay tuition to offset the costs.

Klein says she's also seen the downside of the high demand for an American education.

"Probably five years ago, we started noticing we had more students living in Newton without a parent or legal guardian," she explained. It was a concern. In some cases students were left to fend for themselves or charged outrageous rent. At times, the district had no idea who they were actually living with.

"I think there are people who want to circumvent the process and that's really discouraging," Klein said.

On Craigslist the I-Team found a number of companies advertising for homestays and host families. Some companies work with Massachusetts schools. They've sought certification with the national group Council for Standards on International Educational Travel. The companies maintain standards set by the districts.

But the I-Team also found many operating with little or no oversight. One private school headmaster called them "fly by night" operations looking to make a quick buck and said it was hard for schools to know who to trust.

In recent years, Newton has tried to combat this by establishing a relationship with one trusted vendor, Educatius.

They've streamlined the process so students know exactly what they need to do to attend school in Newton.

"If a student is going to come to Newton from another country for the sole purpose of attending school, we want to know about it," said Klein.

When the I-Team confronted the company looking to place a student in Lexington, they immediately pulled the ad. They told us they are a small start up who works with a Chinese based company and they did not know they were breaking Lexington's rules.

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