Questions about what might become of Fox Point’s historic and stately Tockwotton Home, vacant since early January when its elderly residents moved to a new facility across the river in East Providence, were answered on July 19 when the building was sold to Roosevelt International Academy (RIA) for $2 million. Tockwotton Home has been much more than just a physical presence in the community since its construction in 1864. While the 48,500-square-foot brick building dominates the landscape as seen from India Point Park, it feels securely tucked into the neighborhood when approached from its main entrance on East Street, across from the Vartan Gregorian Elementary School.
As East Side Monthly reported in May, Benjamin Ben Tré, a founder and managing partner of RIA, met informally with area residents in April to explain his proposed use of the building as a boarding school, of sorts, for international high school students. In August, as promised, Tockwotton Home re-opened its doors, this time to a much younger generation of residents.
Ben Tré and his business partner, Jo- nas Norr, founded RIA, a for-profit LLC, in 2010, with the big picture mission of promoting better understanding between the next generation of global leaders in the United States and other countries likely to be economic and political powers in the 21st century, and to do so through education.
Ben Tré and Norr have worked together in business for ten years, in the capacity of what Norr describes as “classic entrepreneurs,” specifically focused on investing in “impact or socially responsible” businesses, such as green real estate development, renewable energy and clean biotech. They intend to replicate the RIA model in other U.S. cities and are currently exploring property options in Cleveland, where Norr grew up. Ben Tré is from Providence. (His name may be familiar to many East Siders. His father is Howard Ben Tré, internationally recognized for his unique cast glass sculptures, including pieces at Wheeler, RISD, Brown and downtown.)
At the time of reporting, about 25 students had arrived in Providence and were deep into a month-long intensive program to prepare them for their first year in an American high school. By the time of publication, Ben Tré expects that approximately 70 students will be living at Tockwotton, while attending one of eight partner schools in the Providence area. Tockwotton can accommodate as many as 118 students, but Ben Tré is not pushing for that number just yet. “It feels good with 70. Going too quickly can be detrimental to the program,” he says. This year, RIA will have students enrolled at Wheeler School, Providence Country Day, Moses Brown, Lincoln School, St. Raphael Academy, Bishop Hendricken, Bay View Academy and Bristol-Warren’s Mt. Hope High. A small number of students (20) will actually be returning for a second year, as RIA had operated a pilot program last year, housing students in rented space.
Last year, 70% of RIA’s students made the honor roll at their partner schools, according to Norr, despite their language disadvantage. A key to that success is the summer prep program, which includes cultural orientation activities and field trips as well as a rigorous academic program tailored to the specific expectations of each partner school’s curriculum. Academics include classes in English language skills, history, math and science and world religions. The latter is necessary because this country’s strong Judeo-Christian cultural basis is not one RIA students are naturally familiar with, especially those coming from China. Most of this year’s students are Chinese, but Ben Tré emphasizes that RIA is expanding recruitment efforts to other countries in Asia as well as Latin America, the Middle East and West Africa.
It is expected that as the program matures, RIA students will attend the same high school for four years, fully participating in all aspects of high school life. Right now, partner schools are accommodating students as their class enrollments allow, but once a student is placed at a school he or she is there as any other student would be. There is one exception to this approach. This year, some students will be attending Mt. Hope High, a regional high school in Bristol, for just one year in a more traditionally structured senior-year-study-abroad program. The one-year limitation is necessitated by US visa regulations that currently apply to public but not private high schools. It should be noted that all RIA students pay tuition directly to the partner schools, including Mt. Hope.
Matching students to a partner school is, according to Ben Tré, a complex process that includes a common application, which the partner schools review, and a minimum of two interviews, with RIA and with the partner school, as well as standardized testing, including for English proficiency. He explains, “Through that process of getting to know the students, we recommend what we think are the best matches.”
Recruiting students is done in much the same way as any boarding school approaches the task, says Ben Tré. RIA has partnerships overseas with various educational organizations that already promote opportunities for study abroad. RIA has a physical office in Beijing and relationships with particular schools in China. A student may also apply directly online.
A major factor motivating students who apply to RIA is the belief that attending an American high school will help them gain admittance to a college in the United States. “These students and their families always have this goal in mind, no matter how far-reaching it may be, of going to Harvard or MIT or Stanford, or another American university,” explains Norr. “The chances are so much higher if they are able to attend a high school here.”
Of course, RIA students share a strong interest in experiencing American culture and engaging with Americans, but there is another commonality, says Ben Tré: they are all very brave. “It is not a small thing to come over here, at age 13 or 14, with the expectation that you are going to be here not only through high school but probably through college as well.”
Based on feedback from David Flanagan, Assistant Principal at Bishop Hendricken, the benefit of the high school exchange goes both ways. Hendricken has had a “homestay” program for international students in place for six years, and last year began enrolling RIA students. “For us, a different population of students offers the benefits of a cross- cultural experience to our students as well.” Flanagan believes strongly in the importance of the program. “Long term, we recognize that in any field of endeavor, we will be working with the Chinese, in particular. For our students it is a great first look, a chance to work elbow to elbow,” with students from a different culture. It is, he says, easier for the American students to accommodate than it is for the international students to acclimate, but in the end the divide is not that great. “You know what? Kids are kids, still, around the world.”
Moses Brown has one RIA student this year, a junior, but Director of Admissions Hugh Madden Jr. hopes the relationship continues and expands. RIA’s residential component enables Moses Brown to once again have the diversity of international students, as the school no longer has its own boarding program. Lincoln School last year enrolled four RIA students and is continuing participation this year. RIA students added much to the Lincoln community, says Hilary Fagan, Director of Admissions. She credits RIA’s extensive program of academic support with ensuring the students’ success at Lincoln.
Indeed, RIA will even send tutors into partner schools during free-study periods if a student needs that extra help. Much of the overall responsibility for this level of support, academic and otherwise, falls to two RIA administrators in particular, both of whom have extensive backgrounds in education.
Robert Vincze, Director of Academics and Program Development, has been an educator for 39 years. Most recently he was both a teacher and administrator at the Dalian American International School in Dalian, China. He has been instrumental in developing its in-house curriculum. He has gotten to know the students individually and he calls them “a wonderful bunch of students.” It is his job to know the curriculum at each of the partner schools and to design RIA’s tutoring and academic programs accordingly.
Westley Ivankovich joined the RIA staff this past June, as Director of Residential Life and Operations. New to Rhode Island, Ivankovich spent 19 years in Tuscany, Italy, where he was Academic Dean of the International School of Florence. His roots are in Michigan and he has strong ties to its internationally acclaimed Interlochen Arts Academy for high school students. He hopes to use his background in music and musical programming to foster partnerships between RIA and the greater Providence community. Ivankovich is very impressed with RIA. “It is an incredible team here. The academic and residential programs are vast and varied.” Ivankovich believes these programs will produce success for RIA’s students and help accomplish what Ben Tré and Norr are setting out to do: put RIA on the map, both locally and internationally.
Stay tuned. As RIA settles into its new home, it will be reaching out to local businesses and community organizations in a concerted effort to be not just an educational facility but an active member of the Fox Point neighborhood, much like Tockwotton Home was.