Weiming Education Group, an international private school based in China is seriously exploring the option of purchasing the UConn Greater Hartford Campus in West Hartford.
By Ronni Newton
Weiming Education Group, which has its roots in China where it started one school in 1999, is interested in making West Hartford the site of its newest global campus and its first school in the United States.
“What we want to do is establish an international high school academy,” said Weiming Education Group USA CEO Tim DiScipio. Students from Asia, Europe, the U.S., and eventually South America would study and be housed on the campus, he said.
The school would be unique among area private schools, DiScipio said. “The differentiator is that it’s very internationally-focused on the global competitive marketplace and global growth fields” – relevant to what students will eventually be doing in their jobs.
Weiming took the first official step Wednesday in expressing interest when DiScipio sent a letter to Town Manager Ron Van Winkle, Mayor Scott Slifka, and the West Hartford Town Council Wednesday, stating the company’s desire to “establish an international high school academy serving American, Asian, European and South American students who will board and receive instruction on the campus.”
“This is quite interesting – in a very good way,” Town Manager Ron Van Winkle said of the opportunity which could create millions of dollars in economic development for the town.
DiScipio said that Weiming looked at about six U.S. markets, with the goal of being not only in a state that was academically focused but a town and community with that focus as well. West Hartford clearly fit the bill. The fact that West Hartford already has an impressive Mandarin Chinese language program in both public high schools, and will be adding it on the elementary school level, was also a factor.
Connecticut itself is very strong in the bio-science and STEM areas, not only in schools but in its industry, DiScipio said. There is an excellent pool of teachers and administrators in the area. Opportunities could also be created for university students to partner with Weiming to teach at one of their international schools, DiScipio said.
It’s very early in the process, DiScipio said, and although he and other representatives of Weiming have walked the campus, there is still much due diligence to be done.
“The idea is to purchase the entire property and repurpose the existing buildings that are there,” Di Scipio said. “Our number one priority is figuring out how it could function as a campus.” He doesn’t know if the entire 58-acre parcel would be needed, and said that would be determined at some point in the future.
The name of the school has not yet been finalized, but DiScipio said it would be something that reflects its status as an international academy. He’s not yet sure of the size of the school, but said it would likely be similar to other area private boarding schools.
It would probably be several years before the school would open, DiScipio said. UConn is not scheduled to vacate the campus until 2017.
The potential benefits to having Weiming as owner of the property are numerous – not the least of which is that they are a for-profit entity and would potentially add millions to West Hartford’s Grand List. Because the students will not be driving, the school would not adversely impact traffic in the residential neighborhood.
Van Winkle said that bringing a Weiming school to West Hartford would be a “great example of importing industry.” He said that it’s a great idea from an economic development perspective not only because it would be a for-profit entity, but also because it would bring in students from all over the world, whose family’s would be spending money on tuition and other items with funds that are being brought in from elsewhere.
“For all the kinds of uses, I didn’t think we were going to find a school – and to find a brand new one is remarkable,” said Van Winkle.
Bringing an international school to West Hartford would also enrich the culture of the area and provide cultural opportunities for local students. DiScipio said that Weiming would like to partner with area high schools, including Conard and Hall, to pursue “mutually beneficial, cross‐cultural and global study programs.”
“I’m very excited about it,” said West Hartford Superintendent of Schools Tom Moore. West Hartford is already a center for educational excellence and he said this would be good for all of our kids.
“We promise in our mission statement to produce global citizens, and this is another means for us to expose our kids to the world at large and the world they’ll be entering,” Moore said.
“It works when it’s reciprocal and mutually-beneficial. It gives the students not only an important empathy but also builds a skill set that can be transferred down the road,” said DiScipio. As an example he said that down the road some of the Chinese students could tutor students in Mandarin.
Weiming launched its U.S. operations in 2012, and already has some successful exchange programs in the Midwest, DiScipio said.
Weiming has already launched an exchange program with West Hartford Public Schools that will begin in the next academic year. Moore said that 20-25 students will be coming to West Hartford through that program and it will also open up the opportunity for local students to travel overseas.
“More opportunity for education leads to more vibrancy,” Moore said.
In January, the West Hartford Town Council authorized Van Winkle to negotiate with the University of Connecticut for the possible purchase of the West Hartford campus. Those discussions have been underway, as have Phase 1 and Phase 2 environmental studies.
On Tuesday, Director of Community Service Mark McGovern showed members of Community Planning & Physical Services Committee a map that has been prepared showing all of the property’s wetlands. When asked at that meeting what the best possible use for the property might be, McGovern said that “continuing use as a school would be really good and least disruptive to the neighborhood.”
“This is not the end of all of the discussions for the land,” Van Winkle said, adding that it’s a “wonderful opportunity to even be considered.” He said that if Weiming does decide to purchase the property, he’s not yet sure how the transaction will take place and whether or not West Hartford would be involved in the purchase. No matter what, he said, the town will continue to own the baseball fields.
The New Children’s Museum has expressed a desire to move to the UConn property, but according to Van Winkle does not have the $15-$25 million in funding available for the deal.
The property is currently zoned for single-family homes on quarter-acre lots, with a special use permit allowing it to operate as a school. A significant portion of the 58-acre parcel is classified as wetlands.
For more information about Weiming, visit their website.
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