BG renovating building into new residence hall

Penn State Altoona has executed major projects downtown during the last few years, bolstering the “eds” portion of “meds and eds” redevelopment, as touted by local officials.

Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School is chipping in with a project of its own – the renovation of a 14-unit apartment building on 13th Street as a residence hall to accommodate expansion of its international students program.

In the past, host families housed all of Guilfoyle’s international students, who numbered 11 two years ago and 18 last year, said high school President Tom Kristofco.

But the school wasn’t able to find enough additional host families to house all 33 of the international students it will bring in for the coming school year, he said.

So it has renovated the former Sylvan Apartments on 13th Street, just above the former Cathedral elementary school, as a residence hall for 19 of this year’s group.

It has hired two full-time Penn State Altoona graduates to reprise their college roles as live-in resident assistants and one part-time campus graduate to fill in when one of those isn’t available.

It has arranged with area restaurants to cater weekday dinners and all weekend meals and for the school’s director of student life and the two resident assistants to provide transportation in school vans.

The students will be responsible for cleaning their rooms and doing their wash in the laundry room at the Sylvan, while Guilfoyle maintenance staffers will take care of common areas – with the resident assistants and student life director handling “small tasks.”

Only punch list items remain of the renovation, and students will be coming to the building to live on Aug. 21, Kristofco said.

The board has been working on the expansion of the international program for about a year and a half, according to Kristofco.

It’s expanding the program to add to enrollment and to enhance the cultural opportunities at BG and in the community at large, he said.

Having international students in U.S. high schools helps prepare local students for the “multiple perspectives” they’ll encounter in college, where 500,000 international students are enrolled, said Matt Jennings of The Cambridge Institute of International Education in Boston, Guilfoyle’s partner for the program expansion.

“High schools must do their best to offer this same sort of student diversity,” Jennings wrote in an email.

Having international students in high school can also help local students learn foreign languages and become familiar with foreign ways of life.

“As a second language learner of Mandarin, I wish I had the opportunity to begin my language studies earlier, and [to be] inspired by my classmates to learn more about their cultures,” Jennings wrote. “In our increasingly interconnected, international world, knowledge of other cultures is vital to future professional success.”

That cultural diversity is especially important for local students who may never have the chance to go abroad, according to Jennings.

The international students for the coming school year are from China, South Korea, Norway, Germany and “a couple other European countries,” Kristofco said.

Guilfoyle “ambassador families” will help introduce each of the international students to others in the school and to activities and clubs.

That will be especially important for the ones living in the new residence hall.

“We don’t want our [international] students to be in silos,” Kristofco said. “We want them to take part in what BG has to offer, so they learn the customs and culture and become familiar with the community.”

Isolation hasn’t been a problem in the past, as Guilfoyle students have done “a very nice job of reaching out,” Kristofco said.

The Cambridge partnership began in January with five students, all of whom elected to come back, Kristofco said.

“We feel pretty good about that,” he stated.

The expansion of the program includes a shift from one-year “exchange” commitments to multi-year opportunities.

The Cambridge group is evenly distributed among all grades from 9 to 12, and the ninth-graders can spend all four years at Guilfoyle if they want, Kristofco said.

Among preparatory work for the program expansion was a visit this summer by Guilfoyle Principal Joan Donnelly and Enrollment Director Amanda Walker to China to meet candidate students, review the schools they attended and go to student fairs.

They learned that families of prospective Guilfoyle students were impressed that there are many local colleges like Penn State Altoona, St. Francis, Mount Aloysius, Juniata and St. Vincent, where their students can migrate after high school graduations, Kristofco said.

Guilfoyle also interviewed prospective international students through Skype and obtained their transcripts before accepting them.

All must be fluent in English.

The school has hired a director of English as a second language to ensure the international students can take an active part in school and community life, Kristofco said.

Kristofco declined to say how much the Sylvan project cost.

Using plans drawn by architect Joe Oricko, contractor L.S. Fiore Inc. replaced 55 windows, cleared the building of the two apartments that were in the basement, turned five of the remaining units into three-student apartments and turned one into a four-student apartment.

Workers also turned three of the original units into resident assistant housing, one into an activity center, one into the laundry center and one into a storage room.

International student families pay “significantly more” to attend BG than local students, Kristofco said.

The tuition at Guilfoyle is listed at $5,500 a year on the Private School Review website.

City Planning Director Lee Slusser is pleased with the project, which his office is reviewing as a land development.

“It’s a richer learning environment for BG,” he said. “And it’s always great to see another building saved downtown.”

The project complements what Penn State has done downtown, according to Patrick Miller, who heads the Greater Altoona Economic Development Corp.

“The whole issue of the opportunity to grow a new resident population downtown is beginning to gain some momentum,” Miller said. “It all kind of begins to complement everything.”

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.