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Academy for Chinese students gets Wauwatosa panel's approval

Days Inn property on Bluemound would house kids from abroad

Jan. 14, 2014

The Wauwatosa International Academy received key approvals from the city's Plan Commission this week, bringing it a step closer toward the purchase of the Days Inn and Bluemound Gardens Restaurant & Banquet Center, 11811 W. Bluemound Road.

The academy plans, over a period of years, to transform the hotel into a campus-like setting and a home away from home for as many as 205 Chinese students who would attend area high schools.

The program currently has 92 students, housed in leased space in the Baymont Hotel in Glendale, who attend five area parochial schools.

The academy was twice rejected in its efforts to purchase the Hilton Hotel by the city of Glendale, which was unwilling to lose the hotel, as reported in Glendale NOW. It has now set its sights on Wauwatosa. It hopes to move into the Days Inn property in the fall and expects to have 140 students enrolled next year.

The academy, a for-profit entity, is modeled on a sister program begun in 2009 in Marlborough, Mass., where a former business training facility now houses 250 to 300 students who attend area schools. It is affiliated with CERNET, the China Education and Research Network, a government-funded agency promoting education.

Varied support

Residents who attended Monday's meeting were divided on the proposal, expressing full or qualified support or opposing the plan.

Concerns about fencing, traffic flow (for the two buses and four vans that would transport the students), lighting, noise, behavior and potential future uses of the site (if the academy was sold) were the main objections.

"This is a wonderful, wonderful thing, but it should not be in the middle of a residential neighborhood," said Marilyn Nelson, of 115th Street.

She worried that the vehicles taking the students to school would clog her street and that Chinese students might "take jobs from Wauwatosa kids." Along with other neighbors, she also said she was insufficiently notified of the proposal.

A number of residents complained especially that they were not aware of a neighborhood meeting held last week at the banquet center, set up by the academy.

Getting to know them

Matthew Gibson, the academy's principal, and Jian Sun, the president, said at the earlier meeting and this week that the students came mainly from wealthy Chinese families, were screened for character and academic promise, and are seeking a more diverse and interactive educational experience than what's available in China.

Gibson said the students know that misbehavior can result in them being sent home, and in two years in Glendale, and four in Massachusetts, conduct has not been a problem. He said the students would not be employed in the United States.

Students typically will leave for school at about 7 a.m., and return from 3:30 to 4 p.m., with others returning later after extracurricular activities. They have a study period from 7 to 9 p.m., and must be in their rooms by 10:30, with lights out at 11 p.m. They are chaperoned when they are at the academy around the clock.

Gibson, a former superintendent of schools in Elm Grove and in Fox Point/Bayside, said their main interaction with daily American life, beyond the school day, is on the weekend, when they are free to walk, shop and can form a group to be taken by van to local attractions. (They are not allowed to have cars.)

They are paired with American families who invite them into their homes, Gibson said.

Plan Commission member Angela Mullooly said the students, whom she has worked with as a forensics coach at Pius High School, are highly disciplined, and avid consumers.

"These students come over with their pockets full of money," she said.

She hopes that they will feel welcomed in Wauwatosa.

"I really want to see Wauwatosa be a home away from home for these students," Mullooly said. "It take a lot of courage to come over here, and study for one year, four years, away from their families. We can be their family.

"We can get to know them, I would love to be able to go over to their academy and do a holiday event with them, celebrate some of their things, and that's a cultural exchange that is just on our doorstep."

Planned upgrades

Upgrades of the facility will begin with roof repairs and a code-required sprinkler system, the installation of fencing, and the creation of green space and sports fields in place of the capacious parking lot. Sun said it would be a period of years before full upgrades to the entire facility were completed.

He emphasized the high standards that visiting Chinese parents would expect.

"Those parents (are) living in million-dollar homes in China — they're going to want to see something nice," Sun said.

To resident Cary Merkl, the idea of "group living" suggested possible future uses of the facility as a halfway house or a rehabilitation center.

But City Attorney Alan Kesner said the Plan Commission approval would amend the zoning code to add "group living" as a conditional use under the hotel's commercial zoning, which would prevent its use as a halfway house or similar facility.

Gibson noted that the academy, as a for-profit entity, would pay property taxes on the upgraded facility.

Mullooly acknowledged there are practical concerns to be ironed out — fencing, lighting, traffic patterns, among other things — but "all of that can be worked through," she said

The commission voted unanimously to approve the zoning code amendment, and approved conditional use of the facility by the academy. It will be the subject of a public hearing before the Common Council, likely March 4, and will be reviewed by the Community Development Committee March 11. Both events will allow for public comment.

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