Hindered, but Not Deterred: Talking About Charter School Facilities with Clear Dot Charter School [Q&A]

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Clear Dot Charter School in South Carolina will open in the fall of 2019 after facing facilities challenges.

Every weekday, the school bell rings as children explode from yellow school buses, run through the hallways, and into their classes to start a full day of learning. This a sight that excites us all in education.

But, this is a sight that might not get seen by all charter school leaders as they face everyday facility challenges that prohibit them from opening charter schools. Charter schools have been forced to open in unconventional facilities as the fight for facility space and funding throughout the nation rages on.

From opening in a location with enough space to meet the needs of their students, charter schools have faced a harsh reality: open anywhere and secure funding or don’t open at all.

To further understand the facility challenges charter schools face, I spoke with Lindsey Ott, principal of Clear Dot Charter School.

Clear Dot, with a mission to support the development of globally competent students, will open in 2019 at a former Jim Moore Cadillac dealership. The school expects to enroll 300 to 500 students and will draw students from the Columbia suburbs.

Clear Dot will open in 2019 at a former Jim Moore Cadillac dealership in South Carolina.

Q & A with Lindsey Ott, principal of Clear Dot Charter School.

Lindsey Ott, principal of Clear Dot Charter School.

How did you select the neighborhood for your school?

One of the intents with selecting the 2222 Main location is to be a "commuter school." We hope that families who work downtown will appreciate the option of having their children in school nearby.  We hope that these families will utilize the close proximity to come eat lunch with their child and be very involved in their education. Another benefit we anticipate, is to alleviate the pressure of rushing back out to the suburbs after work to retrieve the children.

Describe the process of securing your school’s building?

The facility acquisition process has been tedious, as with most projects. Before the site can be purchased, a large amount of due diligence must be completed. Traffic, environmental, and zoning studies/requirements are just a few things that must be conducted and/or met before the purchase for a school can be completed. Additionally, in South Carolina the Office of School Facilities must approve the site. In addition to that approval, specifically in the North Columbia business district, the city’s design review team must be assured that the design is in keeping with the standard set by the city for that area. 

What was the decision behind choosing your construction firm to do the renovation work for the school?

As a part of the Clear Dot facility team, we were fortunate enough to secure MB Kahn for design build of the school. MB Kahn Construction has an excellent reputation in South Carolina and their good standing has made this process much easier to navigate. MB Kahn has 50 years of experience having built over 3,000 schools in the southeastern United States. The architectural team selected by MB Kahn, McMillan Pazdan Smith, has been willing to work with our team, gratis, to ensure that the project is a success. Together, these groups have worked with us on a daily basis as we have had to navigate through a variety of changes to coordinate and meet the needs of the numerous approval entities. 

The school’s project is estimated to cost $20 million and be built in three phases over five years. How were you able to secure funding for your facility space? How long did this process take?

[The school’s support service provider,] Academica, has provided financial support during the planning phase of the school. Most recently, Clear Dot was the recipient of a Planning and Implementation Grant as provided for by the United States Department of Education, in conjunction with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Your charter school will open inside a long-abandoned car dealership that takes up nearly the entire block. How will this facility meet your needs? What challenges will arise?

We love this facility! The history of the building and the neighborhood were extremely attractive to our team. One of the main focuses of our school is conservation. We want to model that through our facility. We will conserve as much of the original dealership, particularly the historic shop area, as we possibly can. The site has MANY challenges. While the physical site is 5.3 acres, which seems like a lot of space, the existing buildings are spread out across the property, which boasts a 14-foot grade drop. The original shop building was added onto at least three times. I call it Frankenstein, so it has many unique features. However, due to the type of construction used, it is a very solid structure. As a result, we want to maintain as much of this original structure as possible as it has proven its stability. We also have a large retaining wall that is a major structural part of the building that we will need to leave intact. Although these aspects of the site are "challenges," I believe that they add a great deal to the character of the project. 

What was the biggest barrier in finding a facility space?

Finding a large enough space in an urban area was the biggest challenge.

What are your plans to grow the school?

As a K-12 school, we want to be a place where parents can bring all of their children to attend school.  At maximum capacity, we will house 1,300 students. At some point in the future, we would like to repeat the process of finding an urban area in need of revitalization and additional school options and start another Clear Dot. 

What portion of your per-pupil operating revenue went towards your facility?

As a general rule, charter schools should not spend more than 20 percent of its revenue on facility, so we have structured our financing accordingly.

How will your school building facilitate learning?

Our facility will facilitate learning by having a lot of open work spaces in the center of classroom called “pods.” Our curriculum is very much project oriented, so we needed areas for team teaching and non-traditional learning.  We also wanted multiple garden spaces for the students, which this site enables. 

Clear Dot has plans to renovate the school which currently features a showroom, offices, repair shop etc. How will the school renovate?

The first step in the renovation will be in interior demolition. This will be followed by exterior demolition and site work. The showroom area that faces Main Street, will have a major aesthetic overhaul and the asphalt from that space will be removed to be replaced by a small garden. The shop area will be the first space reconfigured for classroom use, as it is a large open area right now. 

The first part of the facilities renovation for Clear Dot Charter School was interior demolition.

Other than the outdoor gardens, what other special amenities will your school building have? (i.e. gym, playground, library etc.)

The media center will be built into the existing showroom area. The gym is slated to be constructed in phase three, next to the outdoor pavilion. We will have a play area integrated into the garden space, along with a walking trail. Another interesting feature of the building will be a hydroponics garden located on the first floor of the building. 

Clear Dot received a conditional charter from Erskine College. How will this help to shape the future of Clear Dot?

Erskine has been fantastic to work with. The conditional charter process includes a list of pre-opening conditions that we must meet. This has served as a checklist for me to make sure that I am make adequate daily progress towards the first day of school. 

As principal of the charter school how do you envision the first year for your students?

I envision the first year as an establishment of the school community. My goal is for my students, and their families, to view Clear Dot as their home away from home. We of course will pursue academic excellence, but we also want to make school a place that children look forward to attending. 

How has the community embraced your school?

We have met so many supportive folks in the area. Part of our marketing strategy is to attend local events and festivals as a vendor. We set up a table and engage with families as they stop by. We have heard so many stories from families who are thrilled to have one place they can bring their children that is close to where they work. Also, many of the residents in the area I have spoken to are excited to reclaim such a large part of Cottontown. We have been very intentional in trying to utilize local vendors in the area, who have been fantastic to work with. Indah Coffee has served as our “office” during this procurement process, which has been so helpful and enjoyable. Cromer’s P-Nuts, a long-standing Columbia institution, recently opened a new store nearby, and they have been instrumental in helping us obtain marketing materials, as well as a “home base” for Clear Dot activities. My advice is the realm of garnering support is to keep trying.  Reach out to every group, business, individual, or association in your area. Listen to what they say and act on that. Keep telling those stakeholders your ever-evolving plans. Once you make those positive connections, hang on to them. Support them, and they will support you.

Some critics fear the school will hem the emerging Cottontown retail district. How do you feel your charter school will help transform the area?

Clear Dot Charter School is a community-oriented school. We want to come into the community and maintain the existing look and feel, or "vibe" of the neighborhood. Because the Jim Moore site is so large, we believe that by developing the site we will speed up the transformation of Cottontown. We hope to aid in the overall vision for Main Street, which is improved walkability in the process. Clear Dot will add two parking lots to Cottontown, with an option for shared parking after hours. Additionally, we are converting one of the outter buildings on the corner of Sumter and Franklin into an outdoor pavilion that will be available for community use.  

If you could change one thing about the inequities charters schools face when trying to find a facility, what would it be?

We get no additional funding for a facility. It is almost comical that charter schools are expected to compete with large district schools who are able to levy taxes and utilize local funding for facilities. I believe that charter schools should have the same access to funding as any other public school. Clear Dot is lucky to have secured partnerships with American Charter Development, Academica, and MB Kahn or we would not have been able to secure a facility for our school that matches our vision for the educational programming. 

What advice would you give to charter school leaders trying to build or locate a space for their school?

  1. Find good partners. MB Kahn Construction, Academica, and American Charter Development have been able to leverage their collective experience to help Clear Dot fulfill our vision.
  2. Find an excellent real estate agent who not only knows the property, but community members. Chris Farley at Southern Visions was instrumental not only in the property procurement but also in helping me establish business connections.
  3. My other advice would be to be tenacious. Stick with your vision. There will be times when you feel like there is no way you can make this happen. In those times, revisit your vision and push harder. 

What lesson do you hope the community takes from the facility process your school went through?

I think the most important lesson is to not give up on your vision. Clear Dot has a vision for our community and will meet a need for students in our area. That is so important for the long-term viability of our community. I think people get discouraged if a charter isn’t approved the first time, or they struggle to find financing. It is absolutely imperative that you keep working if you encounter barriers such as these. Nothing worth doing comes easily and no charter school leader will claim any part of it was easy. Build a team who supports you, partner with whoever believes in your vision, and keep pushing forward. Charter school leaders are almost always supportive of one another. Reach out to other folks who have done what you want to do and learn from their experiences and accept help from anyone who offers. 

Kelsey Nelson is the manager of campaigns and publications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Learn more about the facilities challenge many charter schools face and help ensure charter schools can open their doors to students!