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A Vincent Academy student tries her hand at shoveling at Thursday's groundbreaking ceremony.

Vincent Academy breaks ground on new school site

on November 14, 2014

Graffiti is everywhere. Concrete beams and two-by-fours sit exposed, a half-finished project from who-knows-when. On an exterior wall of the forgotten hops processing plant at 26th Street and Chestnut in West Oakland, a spray-painted boy with swirls for eyes stands alone in a small rowboat. Next to him in block letters, an ominous tag states: NO ONE IS COMING TO THE RESCUE.

As of Thursday, the tag is no longer true.

Teachers, supporters and parents from Vincent Academy officially marked the start of construction on their new school location with a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday afternoon. Vincent Academy is a public charter elementary school that was founded in 2011 and has quickly outgrown its current location about five blocks away. The new school will replace the existing location beginning next summer.

They partnered with BRIDGE Housing, an affordable housing developer and manager which owns the land where they are building the new school site. “We realized that BRIDGE Housing and Vincent Academy shared a vision,” said Jean Driscoll, the school’s cofounder and president of the board. “It was a very collaborative process.”

“It seemed that it was a great opportunity to partner with them,” said Cynthia Parker, president and CEO of BRIDGE Housing. She said that Driscoll approached BRIDGE about three years ago looking for a larger home for the school, and that Driscoll initially proposed portable structures on a BRIDGE property. Parker said that she was impressed with the school’s program, and that she wanted to help the school come up with a more permanent solution.

Driscoll said that the school began as a kindergarten and first grade program; they added a grade each of the past three years to keep growth sustainable, and now offer up through the fourth grade. But the process has not been without growing pains. Driscoll said that the school had to temporarily drop their transitional kindergarten program due to lack of space. “Transitional kindergarten programs are so important for kindergartners,” she said.

Once the new school is ready, Driscoll said the school plans to bring back that program and add a 5th grade. The school currently has 143 students, but Driscoll said that she hopes for it to grow to 350 students once the new school is completed next summer.

The New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) Program—a federal program that encourages private investment in low-income communities—was an important part of making the project work, Driscoll said. The construction of the school is expected to cost $9.5 million, which will be funded in a joint-effort with an NMTC investment by Chase Bank, a loan from the nonprofit community development financial institution Low Income Investment Fund (LIIF), and $2.6 million in capital raised by a fundraising campaign for the school. Siegel and Strain Architects are designing the new school, and Charles Pankow Builders is the general contractor.

The design of the school will incorporate the existing structure that once housed a hops processing plant. The rest of the expansive lot is mostly dirt now, surrounded by a temporary fence. It takes up more than a quarter of the block between 24th and 26th Streets and between Chestnut and Adeline. The current school has 8,500 square feet—the new one will have 21,000.

As the adults mingled before the ceremony, a table for kids kept them busy with colored markers and animal balloons, and volunteers painted their faces with butterflies, animals, and superheroes. Before the official groundbreaking, Kate Nicol, the head of Vincent Academy, spoke to a crowd of over 100 supporters, students and parents, who hushed their young children. “It’s just such a remarkable feat to be building a new school right here in the heart of West Oakland for the children and families that live here now, and for children and families for generations to come,” Nicol said. “That to me is really exciting.”

District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents the area, said that the project warmed her heart, and noted the commitment and connection of the Vincent Academy faculty. “How do you put your arms around this community?” she asked the crowd. “I think you’ve done it in the very best way.”

Margaret Zuberi, a Vincent Academy parent, also acknowledged the hard work of the Vincent Academy staff as she spoke to the crowd before the ceremony. “They actually know us by name!” she said to applause from the crowd. She said that she has become an outspoken advocate for the school since her daughter began attending several years ago. Zuberi learned about Vincent Academy several years ago by reading a flyer—”Flyers work!” she said, laughing—and that she has actually driven people to the school to get their children enrolled.

After the speeches, Councilmember McElhaney, together with leadership from Vincent Academy, BRIDGE, LIIF and Chase Bank posed for photos as they ceremonially shoveled and tossed dirt.

Although this is BRIDGE’s first school project, it isn’t their first development in West Oakland, Parker said. Across the street is another BRIDGE property, Chestnut Linden Court, a 151-unit mixed public housing and affordable apartment complex that was finished in 2006. Parker said that BRIDGE has over 1,000 affordable housing units in Oakland, with about 750 located in West Oakland alone. They currently have four housing projects underway in Oakland she said.

Across the intersection of 26th Street and Chestnut, McClymonds High School is visible on the next block. The McClymonds Warriors’ goal posts, field lights, bleachers and scoreboard poke up from above the concrete block fence around the school grounds. Parker said that the dwindling attendance rate at McClymonds—a school that was originally built to accommodate 2,000 students—is a sign that the neighborhood has been in decline. She said that the high school currently serves students in the “low hundreds.”

“We are helping the school and the school helping us build out the neighborhood,” Parker said.

Bringing in new elementary students will be the responsibility of Lakisha Hill, the lead recruiter for Vincent Academy. She’s coordinating outreach to local preschools, businesses and community members. She said that over 600 BRIDGE-endorsed information packets will be sent out.

Oakland Police Department Problem Solving Officer Nate Walker covered the ceremony yesterday, since he is assigned to “Beat 7,” the neighborhood that includes McClymonds and the new school location. He said that there had been a woman in a motorhome squatting on the property for a long time, and that she was removed several months ago. He said that the neighborhood has seen its ups and downs. “It’ll change now that there’s a school,” Walker said. “It’s awesome.”

After the dirt-shoveling ceremony, a small crowd of Vincent Academy students in face paint and red, collared uniforms gathered around Councilmember McElhaney and began dancing and singing their school song in chorus: “College is my goal, college is my dream, Vincent Academy will help me get to where I want to be.”

As people were leaving, Max Landman—Balloon Max, he said—quietly blew and twisted long balloons into various shapes and animals for the young children in attendance. A boy in vampire face paint came up to him and asked for a balloon gun, which made Balloon Max hesitate. He declined to make a gun, offering instead to make an airplane.

“It wouldn’t be in the spirit of the day,” he said.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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