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Public Schools sell vacant building for use as charter school

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 16, 2012 - For the first time, St. Louis Public Schools has sold a vacant building for use as a charter school.

After a long delay, the Special Administrative Board voted this week to sell the former Gardenville School at 6651 Gravois to Concept Schools of Chicago, which plans to open it this fall as a second location of its Gateway Science Academy.

The new school, to be known as Gateway Science Academy South, will start with 350 students in grades kindergarten through five, according to Salim Ucan, vice president at Concept Schools. He said plans call for one grade to be added each year so the school eventually would grow to 650 students, K-12th grade.

The current Gateway Science Academy, at 6576 Smiley, also plans an expansion, to a nearby leased location, where high school students will begin attending classes this fall. The school began with grades kindergarten through seven and added eighth grade for the current school year.

Both new buildings will undergo thorough renovation, Ucan said, with the work costing about $3 million at the old Gardenville school and $1.5 million-$2 million at the expansion for the current academy. The renovation, as well as the purchase of Gardenville, will be paid for by the Canyon-Agassi Charter Schools Facilities Fund, a $500 million venture founded last year by former tennis star Andre Agassi to promote the growth of charter schools.

Ucan said the fund would lease it to the Gateway Science Academy for a few years, then sell it to the school outright.

The new Gateway Science Academy South would be sponsored by Lindenwood University, as is the current school. Its application has been submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for consideration at the May meeting of the Missouri Board of Education. The two schools would operate separately but share a board.

Ucan said that as disclosed earlier by the Beacon, Concept had offered the asking price for Gardenville, close to $1.2 million. The offer was not accepted right away. The site originally was listed for commercial development because of the school’s condition.

The Special Administrative Board voted on Tuesday night to sell the school to Concept. The city schools did not respond to a question about whether this sale represented a formal change in policy or just an isolated sale.

Despite the delay in getting a final vote, Ucan said that the company’s experience with the St. Louis Public Schools “was positive. I had a meeting with the superintendent and also had phone conversations with individual board members. What we felt and which we appreciated was that it’s great to St. Louis Public Schools put their political stance on charter schools aside and put the interest of the children and the community first.”

He said both Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Rick Sullivan, head of the SAB, “had the interest of the community and the children in their heart. That’s what I felt. They really were for the students and for improving the quality of education in St. Louis. You can call that a change of heart or a change of policy.”

Ucan noted that the existing Gateway Science Academy has a long waiting list and hopes to extend its success so far to the new location.

“It will be the same school, on the same model,” he said. “This is a proven successful model with a proven record in seven different states. Our current school has become one of the highest performing charter schools in St. Louis. We expect the same rigor and the same program, with smaller class sizes, a rigorous curriculum a lot of new technology integrated in the classroom, a longer school day and an extended school year. Students will have 25 percent more instructional time than their counterparts in the public school system.”

He also stressed the importance of parental involvement. “Our philosophy is to educate not only the child but also the family and the whole community,” Ucan said. “We’ve done it in St. Louis. We’ve done it in 27 other schools throughout the Midwest.”

Ucan stressed that the renovation work to be done in the two new buildings housing Gateway Science Academy facilities would be done by local contractors hired by the Agassi foundation.

“We are not going to be involved in the construction,” he said.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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