Friday, April 20, 2018
Education

Arts-focused charter school in Dunedin grew into a new space

DUNEDIN — For four days in August, Academie Da Vinci principal Susan Ray didn't sleep.

She was too busy supervising movers, who stacked 28 truckloads of furniture and boxes to the ceiling. She was working alongside volunteers who vacuumed construction dirt out of the carpet and wiped away drywall dust.

All weekend, inspectors, teachers and board members flitted about as contractors worked overnight and into the early morning, putting up walls, windows and other finishing touches.

But literally a half-hour before the first school bell rang on Aug. 20, it all came together.

The K-5 public charter school had successfully relocated from portables on an 8,000-square-foot lot on Pinehurst Road to a 19,000-square-foot campus on Keene Road — a move more than 10 years in the making.

While the school has doubled in size and enrollment — 225 students this year versus the previous 116 — Ray says little else has changed.

"It's much bigger to us, but it's still a small school, and we like that," Ray said.

"The goal of the board of directors was to not more than double in size, because some schools have five or six classes for each grade and children really can get lost in those numbers," she said. "We still know families, we still know the individual children. And that's important to us."

A permanent structure had been the goal of Academie Da Vinci's board of directors since 1997, when the arts-focused charter school opened to students inside a 1920s-era "Little House" surrounded by portables at 1380 Pinehurst Road in Dunedin.

There was sparse air-conditioning and it took coordination to shuffle students among several rooms that were used for dual purposes. Portable repair expenses began to escalate.

However, school officials hadn't been able to find a space within their price range until late this spring, when they started negotiating with the owner of the Olympia Center at 1060 and 1064 Keene Road.

The school signed a 20-year lease in late June, and in mid-July, contractors started transforming the former real estate and medical offices into classrooms.

Students now fill the entire 1060 building and a third of the 1064 building. BayCare healthcare network shares the front of the 1064 building and the rest is vacant.

"If a family can imagine moving a house, multiply that by 100. And then we had people coming in and teachers had to do paperwork and take attendance. Looking back, I don't know how we did it," Ray said.

Less than a month after the grand reopening, the former chaos is nearly invisible as kindergartners draw pictures representing Picasso and Cubism, teachers decorate the walls for lessons on American history, and students in toe shoes practice ballet sautes.

To fill the new space, shore up per-pupil state funding and reduce its wait list, the school has added a second class for each grade except kindergarten, which now has three classes. Administrators also hired six new teachers and extended the dance, music and art teachers from part time to full time.

"That's a great asset to our curriculum, being a school of the arts," Ray said, adding that state records show the school has maintained an A grade each year but 2003-04, when it received a B. "Research indicates ... students who're involved in the arts have greater motivation, greater memory, they're more creative in class and are better problem solvers."

But not everything is done.

Boxes and other supplies are still scattered in the teacher's break room and a secretary's office. The school is still working on obtaining permits or construction supplies to complete a computer lab, dance studio and a video production lab where students can produce televised school news updates.

Academie Da Vinci will continue using the 1380 Pinehurst building for storage for the next year.

There have been a few "growing pains," too, says Ray.

For example, she said, some parents complained about their children being split up from old friends as they moved to new classrooms. However, Ray said mixing old and new students helps introduce new students to the school's culture.

At least one parent approached the city of Dunedin about rumors that the school's walls contained lead left over from a previous tenant that operated medical machinery.

Ray said private inspectors' routine tests came back clean for mold, lead, asbestos and other substances. The city also responded to the anonymous inquirer that there were no code enforcement violations on file, and that lead-lined booths once used for X-rays are in BayCare's wing, which is separate from the student area.

"The only time you get lead problems is if a child is eating lead chips or if you disturb it, where you're breathing it in," said Dunedin planning and development director Greg Rice. "As long as the lead is intact, where it can't be breathed or ingested, it's perfectly safe."

Some students said they miss the memories they created in the old building. But they said the large classroom windows, spacious carpeted rooms and large recreation field make up for it.

"Before, we were spread out, and now we see each other and wave," said kindergarten teacher Leanne Megesi, who has taught at the school six years. "It puts us all closer together."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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