New boarding program welcomes world to Totino-Grace High School

| October 25, 2016 | 0 Comments
From left, Totino-Grace High School juniors Frank Chen, Calisto Zhang, Avelyn Lee and Olivia Song study in the residence where they live on campus in Fridley. Lee is from Korea, and the others are from China. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

From left, Totino-Grace High School juniors Frank Chen, Calisto Zhang, Avelyn Lee and Olivia Song study in the residence where they live on campus in Fridley. Lee is from Korea, and the others are from China. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Fridley school converts retreat center to dormitory

Six Totino-Grace High School students have the shortest distance from home to class out of all Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

They just go down the hall from their boarding residence to class at the Fridley school. The accommodations offer many advantages for these students in a new program at Totino-Grace.

“I thought living in the dorm would help me improve my academics because the school’s really close, and I can go ask the teacher anytime if they’re there,” said Totino-Grace junior Hyunji Lee, known as Avelyn, from Korea. “I don’t have a lot of distractions going on here.”

It fits with the intense academic vision these international students have. They come from China and Korea to the U.S. for its academic and economic opportunities.
“They take their education extremely seriously,” Totino-Grace President Craig Junker said.

Junker noted that Totino-Grace has hosted international students before through a home-stay program. Lee and fellow junior Calisto Zhang, from China, participated in the home-stay program last year and returned to Totino-Grace for the boarding program. Sophomore Konas Xu, also from China, transferred from St. Croix Lutheran High School in West St. Paul, which also has a boarding program.

“They have taken each other in as siblings, sort of,” said boarding supervisor Cindy Williams. “They have already learned when to back off [and] when the other person needs support.”

Because the students take such an intense approach to their studies, the boarding sometimes has to encourage balance. Lee likes to cook after school. Some students will play video games, pingpong or piano in the recreation room during down time.

“First and foremost, we want to make sure our students are well taken care of, so they’re learning academically and they’re growing in their personal lives,” Junker said.

Junker came to Totino-Grace with significant experience in boarding programs. He worked at Cotter Catholic High School in Winona, which has a boarding program.

“I could see firsthand the value that these kids brought,” Junker said.

Totino-Grace’s program grew out of the need to find a new use for its retreat center as the school’s 50th anniversary approached this fall. Once the convent for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the retreat center lost money from its retreat program.

“We had this beautiful facility that was unused,” Junker said.

Junker had the school partner with the Cambridge Institute of International Education, a Boston-based organization that works with nearly 300 private schools nationwide.

The institute assists in recruiting international students and developing facilities for schools with a boarding program.

The Cambridge Institute, though not Catholic, respects the faith tradition of the schools it works with.

“We try to guide them but not impose any path,” Cambridge Institute boarding partner Anizio Silva said. “They pick and chose which way they want to go. We want to give them the best environment possible to make the decision.”

Totino-Grace renovated the retreat center this summer. It can accommodate up to 50 students. The boarding facilities have separate wings for boys’ and girls’ residences and restrooms. Students have access to a recreation room and a dining area. The staff provides three meals a day.

Students ease into American culture at the boarding program. That includes gradual introduction to American cuisine versus more familiar food from their respective countries.

Boarding students fully participate in the life of the school, getting involved in extracurricular activities outside of class. Zhang plays for the boys tennis team. Lee competes with the girls golf team and participates in the business club. Xu takes part in music and art.

Similarly, the students get introduced to the Catholic faith through their religion classes, weekly school Mass and service projects. None of the boarding students this year comes from a Catholic background.

“We don’t want to overwhelm our students with the academic side of the faith; we want them to learn how to live the faith,” Junker said.

Junker envisions gradual growth for the boarding program, which could include local students, too. He hopes to get the program enrollment up to 40 students.

“We’re going to do it in a very strategic process,” Junker said.

No other Catholic school in the archdiocese currently has a boarding program. Several archdiocesan schools once had boarding programs, such as Bethlehem Academy in Faribault. St. Joseph Academy had one in St. Paul during the late 1800s before the program moved to Derham Hall in 1905.

St. Joseph Academy closed in 1971, and Derham Hall merged with Cretin High School in 1987.

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