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Urban instruction

A site has been selected for a downtown elementary, which some hope will be established as a charter school.

Kelley Chambers July 13th, 2011

Despite sentimental attachments, a 1910 school building in downtown Oklahoma City will not be the home of a planned elementary school, although one will be built.

As part of the MAPS for Kids program approved by voters in 2001, plans were laid for the Oklahoma City Public Schools to receive 70 new and renovated brickand-mortar school buildings in the district at a cost of $470 million.

As the project nears its end, MAPS for Kids Program Manager Eric Wenger said the downtown school will be the final school building. Earlier this year a committee was established to review site selections for the downtown school. The existing school building at Robinson Avenue and Eighth Street — once known as Central High School — made the final three, but was eliminated due to several factors. In June, a vacant site at the southwest corner of Walker and Sheridan avenues owned by the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority was selected. It was subsequently approved by the Oklahoma City Public Schools Board of Education, the Oklahoma City MAPS Trust and the Oklahoma City Council.

Anthony McDermid, principal with TAP Architecture, the architect of record for site selection and design of the school building, said despite strong support by many in the community, the old high school building just didn’t make sense for the planned elementary school.

“There was a lot of sentimental attachment to that site,” he said. “In the end we could not make it work economically.”

McDermid said the building, which was renovated into an office building by Southwestern Bell and later occupied by the Oklahoma Farmers Union Mutual Insurance Co., is on the market for $9.9 million, but the construction budget for the school is only $9 million. Then there is the size. At more than 177,000 square feet, McDermid said the building is nearly three times the size requirement for the elementary school.

Mayor Mick Cornett expressed disappointment that the old high school would not be the site of the new school. Ward 4 Councilman Pete White took it one step further at the July 5 council meeting where the site was unanimously approved.

“It’s a tragedy that we weren’t able to do that,” he said, despite voting for the site at Walker and Sheridan. “To miss the opportunity to return that building to a public use, I think, is something we will regret, at least those of us that are concerned about the preservation of those kinds of assets in Oklahoma City.”

McDermid said every effort was made to use the old high school. In the end, the Walker and Sheridan site just made more sense.

“At the end of the process it may not have been the sentimental favorite, but it certainly became the clear winner in terms of applying the criteria,” he said.

Additional criteria included access to downtown civic amenities and cultural destinations, transportation accessibility and safety. The other site that met much of that criteria, but was eliminated as one of the three finalists, was the Century Center attached to the Sheraton Hotel.

“It had some (financial) challenges we could not overcome and a complex ownership structure,” McDermid said.

With a site selected, McDermid said the next steps will be creating schematic designs and acquiring the land. OCURA chairman and Devon Executive Chairman Larry Nichols was involved in the site selection process, and McDermid said OCURA has indicated it is a willing seller. When it comes time to put pen to paper to design the school, McDermid said it will not be a typical suburban school building.

“We anticipate it being a totally unique project,” he said.

Over the next year, Wenger said the public will have at least three opportunities to offer input on the design of the school.

The boundaries of the school, the type of school it will be, and who will make up the student body of 500 are details still being worked out. Former Mayor Kirk Humphreys heads a group of business leaders that established OKC Quality Schools, a nonprofit that plans on applying with the school district to operate the new downtown school as a charter school.

Humphreys said it is the first true partnership between the district and a private group seeking to open a school. The plan is to have the district apply for the charter through the University of Oklahoma. From there, a board of 15 will be comprised of six selected by the nonprofit and six by the district. Those 12 members will jointly select three additional members. The board will hire a principal and run the school.

Humphreys hopes to have the process wrapped up in the next two months. If approved by all parties, the board can begin defining boundaries and eligibility. He said the school will include those who live in the district, and those with parents who work downtown.

“The priorities for a child enrolling in this school is if you live in the boundaries, we’ll enroll you,” Humphreys said. “But if you live somewhere else in the school district, and your parent or guardian works downtown, you’re going to get priority over a child whose parents don’t work downtown.”

With a site picked out, Wenger said now the real work begins. He estimates that a perfect scenario would see the school open in the fall of 2013, although a more realistic timeline would be a fall 2014 opening.

“Site selection is just the first step,” he said.

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