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Serra Catholic High School friary to house foreign students

| Friday, April 18, 2014, 4:41 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Serra Catholic High School principal Timothy Chirdon and Shannon Rich, project lead from the Cambridge Institute, display ways that a room in the old Serra friary could be furnished for international students the institute wants to bring to Serra beginning this fall.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
A friary not used for a decade will get new life this fall when the Cambridge Institute houses approximately 20 international students coming to McKeesport to attend nearby Serra Catholic High School.

A residence hall not used for a decade at Serra Catholic High School will get new life this fall.

Through the Cambridge Institute of International Education, approximately 20 students, primarily from China, will be enrolled at Serra and housed at the friary on its campus atop Haler Heights in McKeesport.

“We're renovating it and turning it into a dormitory for international students, all female,” project lead Shannon Rich said Wednesday as she toured the former residence for Franciscan friars who taught from 1961-2004 at Serra.

The Cambridge Institute, founded in 2009, is based in Boston with offices in Los Angeles and the Chinese cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Zhengzhou.

“Today's youth have a growing interest in world cultures,” according to Cambridge's philosophy. “In our global community of increasingly fast-paced communication, it is essential that secondary school students are given the tools to thrive. It is our belief that by fostering interaction between different cultures, we can promote mutual understanding and generate thoughtful problem solvers for the future.”

According to its website, Cambridge has worked with 140 schools in 35 states. Its stated mission is to increase the international profile of American secondary education and promote cultural exchange by cultivating relationships among youth in countries with mature, burgeoning, and rapidly changing economies.

The tour on Wednesday was taken by architects Sheri Spoharski and Jason Brody from the Design Alliance in Pittsburgh, Serra maintenance engineer Tim Fedora and James J. Zielinski, director of the Pittsburgh diocesan office for property planning and development.

It showed a building with more than a score of private rooms, with “Jack and Jill” washrooms between pairs of those rooms. Each dormitory room has a desk, a chair and a bed, and a common television set will be available in the living room.

The friary has wireless Internet service, which means the incoming students will be able to use the Chromebooks given to all Serra students.

Serra principal Timothy Chirdon said the Serra board and the Diocese of Pittsburgh approved an agreement with Cambridge.

“There is a high demand for international students to attend college preparatory high schools in the United States,” Chirdon said.

Serra has six from China and one each from Vietnam and Spain during the 2013-14 school year.

“We are an F1-approved school, which requires a process with the (federal) Department of Homeland Security,” Chirdon said. “We've worked with a few agencies in the past. Cambridge approached us about being a more exclusive agency for international students, so the partnership was formed.”

One reason Serra draws attention is its place on the Top 50 of 1,200 Catholic high schools in America, as determined by the Cardinal Newman Society.

In the Pittsburgh diocese that honor only goes to Serra, St. Joseph in Natrona Heights, Oakland Catholic in Pittsburgh and Quigley Catholic in Baden.

“I think all the Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Pittsburgh are outstanding but each has its own identity,” Chirdon said.

A lot of details must be resolved before a new school year begins, including security, even in a friary that has secure doors between each floor.

“We have discussed cameras and card access,” Rich said, “but nothing has been decided on.”

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.