Growing charter school moving quickly on plans for second campus
It appears the Headwaters Development in southern Forest Lake will get a big boost next year.
Lakes International Language Academy (LILA), the public charter school that opened here in 2004, has a development agreement in place for land adjacent to Fenway Athletic Park and the Forest Lake Area Athletic Association Sports Center.
LILA plans to build a second campus there in time for the 2014-15 school year. The immersion school’s original location in the former District Memorial Hospital building on SE 11th Avenue is at capacity, and with a growing Mandarin Chinese program now complementing the fully developed Spanish track, more space is needed.
Bursting at Seams
Besides an impressive display of bilingual youth, one lap around the current facility reveals a building that has been maxed out.
Originally leased, the facility needed significant work to outfit it for a school leading up to the 2004-05 school year. Opening with a full immersion program in grades K-2 and limited grades 3-4 programming, LILA started with eight classrooms on one side of the building and moved toward the other as space needs dictated. The Lakes International Language Academy Building Company – a non-profit established to handle facility needs that are restricted from the school’s purview – purchased the building from the Fairview health care system in 2006.
That same year, LILA added a wing with 14 classrooms and a gymnasium.
“Probably the first six or seven years, we had construction every single summer, and every single fall we wondered if we’d be done with construction when school started,” said Cam Hedlund, school director.
Growth was a given as the school added a full-immersion grade per year, but even once LILA reached full K-6 status, enrollment climbed on as smaller classes moved out and larger ones fed in.
The incorporation last school year of the Mandarin Chinese immersion track made the need for a new facility a matter of when, rather than if.
That time for that need is rapidly approaching. Today, LILA’s enrollment is just under 700 students, though an alternating-day kindergarten format means the entire student population is never together at once. The building also houses a staff numbering near 100.
“We’re bursting at the seams,” said Hedlund, noting how the entire length of the property is utilized during the pick-up and drop-off rushes.
The addition of the second foreign language offering was also a conscious choice to add a second campus.
“We planned our growth to fit in this building for Spanish,” Hedlund said. “When we decided to add the Chinese, we knew immediately we would have to build someplace else.”
That someplace appears to be a triangular tract of Headwaters. The LILA School Board has approved the general concept, and this Tuesday was scheduled to pick contractors and architects from whom to seek requests for proposals.
Officials next hope to pick a contractor and start the process of selling bonds that would provide revenues of $5-6 million to finance land acquisition and construction.
LILA’s building company would own the facility, and the school would finance its lease payments through state-provided charter school lease aid.
If all proceeds as expected, construction would begin this summer and the new facility could open in the fall of the following year.
LILA is exploring the possibility of housing sixth-graders next school year in a building across the street from its existing campus. It is currently leasing that facility for office space.
The new school structure would likely house the upper grades of both immersion programs, Hedlund said. That could mean grades 5-6 or 4-6.
Though final design details are yet to be fleshed out, the two-story facility may total close to 43,000 square feet and be designed in such a way as to connect to a future second phase.
The current campus would continue to house the lower grades.
“This building will eventually get to 600 [students] again all by itself, so for a year or two there will be a little bit of excess room, but it will fill right up again as the [Chinese] program grows,” Hedlund said.
The school may also look to sell the current facility and move the whole campus to the new site, Hedlund noted.
The preliminary design allows for two parking lots; one could connect to the FLAAA Sports Center parking lot, providing overflow access for both entities.
LILA officials are excited about the possibilities the Headwaters location would bring. Students would have easy access to the Hardwood Creek Library and, assuming a partnership, could use the Fenway Park fields. There is also talk of a park being developed in nearby woods.
The site is so attractive, Hedlund said, that LILA had looked at the same plot as a potential location for the original campus.
“We actually looked and considered possibly trying to be a part of [Headwaters Development], but we weren’t developed enough and they were already moving forward with some other potential places that never came through, so the land has been sitting there open the whole time,” he said.
ISD 831 Impact
LILA and Independent School District 831 in 2011 explored merging, but the necessary legislation failed to gain steam at the state capitol.
Though those discussions are over, LILA officials said ISD 831 has no reason to fear what is dubbed Phase Three of the charter school’s preliminary plans at Headwaters: a 40,000-70,000-square-foot, separate school building that could one day allow for an additional language immersion program or additional grades.
The latter two stages are nothing more than thoughts at this point, LILA officials said.
“We just want to make sure we have flexibility,” Hedlund said.
Though the potential is always there for an election to bring in ISD 831 board members who do not share the ideals of the current board, LILA Assistant Director Shannon Peterson expects the relationship between LILA and Forest Lake Schools to remain very healthy.
“We really like the partnership we have with Forest Lake,” Peterson said. “They’re doing a great job helping the kids with the [Spanish immersion] continuation program in grades 7-12…It’s going well, and they’re making plans already for how they’re going to support Chinese in the same way.”