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DERBY Cultural exchange in the Valley

September 19, 2018

DERBY — The gentle strands of Yihan Chan’s Chinese pipa filled the air.

Moments later Stephanie Sum, Julie Lai, Barbara Chan and Katherine Cheah, in colorful, flowing dresses, performed a celebratory Umbrella Dance.

Pageantry marked the transformation of what was once Marshall Lane Manor — a 120-bed convalescent facility that closed in 2015 — into the Apex International Education Partner’s Connecticut International Academy, the state’s first dormitory for international students not associated with a school.

The facility was rebuilt to the tune of $2 million. It houses 15 teenage students from China attending Fairfield Prep, Notre Dame of Fairfield, Lauralton Hall, Easton Country Day, St. Joseph’s and Sacred Heart Academy. Another five students are scheduled to arrive in January.

What was missing during Wednesday’s unveiling were residents fearful that foreign students would pillage their neighborhood. There had been angry calls last fall for the Planning and Zoning commission to be replaced, and threats of lawsuits.

“Oh my God, its beautiful,” Mayor Richard Dziekan said as he walked through the building. Like many Valley residents, Dziekan had family members who convalesced here during its days as Marshall Lane Manor, run by the Simonetti family. “They did a phenomenal job. I talked to the owner and we’re both exploring ways the kids can perform community service in the Valley.”

That’s a requirement for the students, said David Guerrera, who with Feng Cheng are the founders of APEX International Education Partners. The pair met while students at Fairfield University and formed APEX in 2010.

“Every other month they are required to perform community service — doing beach clean-ups; working at food banks.”

Getting acclimated

APEX, based in Watertown, has 350 Chinese students attending private high schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and Maryland. Most live with host families. Besides the 15 in the Derby dorm, another 13 live in a smaller dorm at Chase Collegiate School in Waterbury. The cost is $29,500 a year, plus tuition.

“They all come from pretty well-off backgrounds,” said Chen, the co-owner. “Most are interested in pursuing an education in business; some like science. One of our former students is studying music at Berklee College of Music.

Chen said weekends are usually filled with trips.

“We are arranging trips to Fairfield, Yale, Sacred Heart and UConn,” he said.

“Ninety-nine percent want to attend a four-year college in the U.S.,” added Guerrera.

Students are given breakfast and transported to and from their schools. Dinner is prepared by a Chinese chef, while the Valley Diner caters weekend meals. English as a Second Language is taught from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. by Jesse Sachs, a Fairfield University senior who lives in Orange. Lights are out at 10:30 p.m.

Anytime a student leaves, they must state where they are going and when they will return. They are not allowed cars, visitors or pets.

“We use WeChat (a social media app), which allows us to contact them at anytime,” Guerrera said.

A change of purpose

For Anthony Simonetti, whose grew up working in his family’s Marshall Lane Manor, there were no tears Wednesday. Those fell in 2015 when he announced its closing due to rising expenses, falling occupancy and no buyer in sight.

“I was jubilant,” said Simonetti of his dorm walk through. “For 50 years, my family catered to the elderly. Now the Guerrera family re-purposed this to cater to the youth.”

Simonetti’s family sold the building to APEX in January for $450,000.

“It was a race to get this done,” said Guerrera. “Feng reminded me daily the students were coming in August.”

Guerrera and Megan LaPorta were also in the midst of arranging their Oct. 6 wedding

APEX hired the PAC Group in Torrington as general contractors, while David Guerrera’s parents helped him oversee the work..

Separate wings with housing, showers, a study hall and recreation room were built. There is a common dining room, staff rooms and a patio.

“We have two more wings we can work on at our own pace,” Guerrera said. The 35,000-square-foot facility can house up to 110 students attending schools within a half-hour drive.

“We’ll probably have 30-40 next August,” he said.

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