School Expansion Update 11/3/2015admin
DaVinci Academy has achieved an impressive level of academic and community success, thanks to our highly engaged staff and families. A year ago, the DaVinci Academy board held a town hall meeting to provide an update on our efforts to serve more students, including our perspective on what it would take to launch a high school that could remain true to our DaVinci Academy principles: academic excellence, differentiation, character development, and of course science and the arts. We have talked to many school leaders, done market research, and invested many hours in research and planning.
Our conclusion was that we need at least four sections of 8th grade to “feed” the high school program. Even with that, the experience of other schools suggests we may only have one or two sections of grades 9 through 12, as families choose high schools for a great diversity of reasons. This is sufficient for a small but sustainable high school. So our first step is to double the K‐8 program by replicating our current program. It took time, but we got approval from our authorizer and the MN Dept. of Education, and also won an expansion planning grant of $200,000 to help cover the costs of replicating our successful K‐8 program.
Expanding our K‐8 program is equivalent to starting a brand‐new school, including: a new building or campus, new funding, new staffing, and marketing to the community. We would likely need more than $10 million in bond financing to build a second school, plus we need a whole new level of involvement and activity from the board, staff, and community volunteers (like you). So a flurry of activity began: seeking potential sites for a second campus, interviewing service providers we may need, and plenty of financial models and analysis.
The financial analysis led to new realization: with the expected enrollment of the new school, we can only afford another small building, the same size as our current one. This means we’d have very cramped quarters in both buildings. Therefore, we are exploring two options: the original plan to duplicate our K‐8 program in a new building, and a plan to build a much larger K‐8 school and combine all students into the new building, leaving our current building behind. The financials appear better for this second approach, but there are real consequences to this idea, including asking current families to follow us to the new school, and requiring a much larger bond financing, around $20 million.
Fortunately, although we haven’t decided the final location yet, the top candidate sites are all within 5 miles of our current school. There were no available buildings that could be turned into a school, so we must resort to new construction on raw land. We are vetting the final sites to see which offers the most attractive mix of “buildability” and reasonable costs. We expect to enter purchase negotiations within two months, and will let everyone know when a decision is made.
Meanwhile, we have formed our “ABC”, that is, the DaVinci Academy Affiliated Building Corporation. This is a separate legal entity which exists solely to hold ownership of any school we may build, because a charter school cannot own its real estate under MN law. The ABC is a necessary legal step on the path to building a new school. In addition, we have engaged a Development Manager with extensive experience in guiding the planning, financing, and construction of charter schools. Kou Vang of JB Realty has managed the construction of Nova Classical Academy, Yinghua Academy, Spectrum High School and many other charter schools, and is highly regarded for his level‐headed, honest approach to the very complex process of building a new school. We have also engaged Rivera Architects to design the school. They will start immediately to gather input about our programs, needs, and wants, in order to start drafting a design that works for our budget.
The site selection, the building design, the financing, and the construction plan must all come together by the coming spring so that we can start construction when the land thaws. We project construction of the shell through the summer, and finishing of the inside through next winter. Our planned move‐in date for the new building will be August 2017. If we consolidate all students in the new building, then next year will be our last year in our current space. If we stay with the two building plan, we will need to renegotiate our current lease in 2021.
All that I have described above is what I’m calling “Phase One”: expand our physical space to enable doubling the K‐8 program. Phase One will last through our first year in the new building (i.e., through July 2018). “Phase Two” will then last three years, as we grow and enroll our student body through 6th grade. During Phase Two we’ll do the initial planning for the high school. Then we’ll start “Phase Three” which will include two years of designing and building DaVinci Academy’s high school program before we enroll grades 9 and 10. Of course, if we can accelerate this timeline, we will.
This is a significant undertaking, and we need all the community involvement we can get. I’m actively requesting that if you have any experience with construction, financing, recruiting, community marketing, or project planning, please volunteer your services to this effort. And if you have none of those skills, we still need and welcome people who are simply willing and available to help. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I must acknowledge the incredible effort that the staff and board are already putting in, above and beyond their day jobs of running the school or tending to their own careers. Thank you, so much, to all of you.
The board will hold another town hall meeting, probably in January after we get some of the many outstanding questions and details nailed down, so that we can share with reasonable clarity what the school expansion looks like, and where it will be. Meanwhile, I will keep you posted as new milestones are reached. And of course, all board meetings are open to the public, if you want to hear more of the many details that go into this process. The board meeting calendar is posted on our website.