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Academy will turn a Hilton into a dorm for Chinese

By Caroline Berg in New York | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-13 11:16

A Wisconsin-based education facility for Chinese exchange students is seeking to acquire a 162-room Hilton hotel to transform it into housing for Chinese and other international students attending local high schools and colleges.

The acquisition is being sought by the Glendale-based Wisconsin International Academy, an organization backed by Massachusetts-based CERNET, which is an agency of the Chinesegovernment's Ministry of Education.

CERNET establishes relationships with education institutions in the United States toprovide international students an opportunity to participate in a college-preparatory programthat will help prepare them for higher education in the US.

In 2011, CERNET and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee partnered to establish the academy, whose program is modeled after one that CERNET implemented in Marlborough, Massachusetts, for Chinese students in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts in 2008.

"We think this hotel is the best fit for us because its location is very, very good," said Jian Sun, president of the Wisconsin International Academy and CERNET Education Science & Technology Research Development Co Inc. "We have a good chance to get [the approval], but you never know."

The academy obtained a purchase agreement from the hotel's sellers six months ago and a financial commitment letter from a local bank to help fund the project, said Sun. The last step is to obtain municipal approval to rezone the property, scheduled for Aug 26.

The Hilton site has been on the market for five years and the owners do not intend to continue operating the property when the franchise agreement ends in eight months. Efforts to find another hotel to buy the Hilton have been unsuccessful.

The hotel would provide room for 324 students with on-site advisers to help the students adjust to life in the US Midwest. CERNET anticipates 100 people will work at the proposed facility. The restaurant on the property would be converted into a dining hall and conference rooms could be used for meetings or study. No major renovation work is planned for the building, which could be open to students by fall term, if the proposal is approved.

The acquisition of the hotel has drawn concern from some business owners and officials in Glendale, population 12,872. The town receives both property tax and room tax from the hotel, and although the proposed facility is a for-profit entity and would remain on the tax rolls, the rezoning would result in the loss of the room tax.

Another concern is that the proposed reuse of the hotel would close public access to an area that has long been enjoyed by residents because of its immediate proximity to the Milwaukee River.

"It's a small town. Some people don't want things to change, which I can understand," Sun said. "But I think we have helped make the community even better. We have been here for about a year in a nearby hotel and we haven't had any issues. I visit the local restaurants and stores and talk to the general managers and they all have positive things to say about the students."

In the academy's first year, 53 students from China enrolled. They were housed on one floor at the Baymont Inn & Suites in the Glendale/Milwaukee North area. The academy will expand its service to between 120 and 130 students for the 2013-2014 academic year and expects to receive between 180 and 200 students for the 2014-15 school year.

In addition to on-site advisers, students at Wisconsin International Academy receive transportation to school and after-school activities, tutors to help on any subject from biology to history, weekend and holiday leisure opportunities, three meals a day, trips to tour regional universities and other services. Sun said tuition fees for the Chinese students range between $30,000 and $40,000.

"We're very much like acting parents," Sun said. "The first few months can be a very difficult time for the students, so we want to hold their hands and make sure they're happy...They see [their child] has become more independent, more polite and care more," Sun said. "I'm so proud about what the kids have been doing here."

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