Plastic tubs overflowing with backpacks line the courtyard walls. The main office, glistening with a fresh coat of paint, is buzzing with activity. Class is in session, and after their big move over the summer, the students and faculty at Vincent Academy are finally settling into their new home.
It has been less than a year since the groundbreaking for Vincent Academy’s new facility at the corner of Chestnut and 26th Street in West Oakland. The school community celebrated the grand opening on August 15. The building is the result of collaboration between BRIDGE Housing, a non-profit housing developer, and Vincent Academy, a public charter elementary school. “We’ve never had a groundbreaking and a grand opening in that short of a time frame before,” said Lyn Hikida, Director of Communications and Media for BRIDGE Housing. “It was pretty amazing.”
But the project had been in the planning stages for several years. The school, which was established in 2011, was expanding quickly, and school leaders soon realized they would outgrow their temporary space. “We were like sardines,” said executive director and cofounder Kate Nicol. “We had 145 or so kids in that facility, and that was max capacity.” By 2014, two portables were leased from Oakland Unified School District to provide additional space on the Ralph J. Bunche High School campus where the school was originally located. The new building can accommodate up to 350 students.
Vincent Academy was initially founded to address what neighbors, parents, and school founders considered a lack of options in their neighborhood for quality elementary schools and concerns that students were instead attending schools in other East Bay cities. Its cofounders are Jean Driscoll, now board president for Vincent Academy, who had been a board member at St. Vincent’s Day Home, a large pre-school in West Oakland, and Nicol who, at the time, was working for the California Charter Schools Association as the regional director for Alameda County.
Nicol said that when Driscoll approached her with the idea to open a charter school to serve West Oakland students, she hesitated. “Schools are really complex organisms…they have lots of different parts to them,” said Nicol. “I just had an appreciation for how many things go into running a school, and I thought, ‘Oh I don’t know, that’s a big deal!’” But when Nicol began to talk with community members, she recognized a need and thought she could help provide a solution. “People really wanted a community school, a neighborhood school, and that really fit with my value system and what I actually think is best for kids,” said Nicol.
When considering the new location for Vincent Academy, there was no question about whom the school should serve. “We were very dedicated to West Oakland, because it was West Oakland families that gave rise to this whole notion of this school,” said Nicol. “So it was really important to us to stay in West Oakland.” Neighborhood families, Nicol said, were very supportive of the move and many parents contributed to the capital campaign to raise $2.6 million for the new facility.
The school currently offers kindergarten through fifth grade classes, visual arts and music performance programs, as well as mental health services. The school is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in an effort to support working families, and offers both after-school programming as well as a summer program, in which students are engaged in academic learning during the mornings, and go on field trips throughout the Bay Area in the afternoons.
BRIDGE Housing owned the lot where Vincent Academy now stands, and were looking to partner with an organization that would help the community while reducing the potential for crime in the vacant lot near their affordable housing development, Chestnut Linden Court. A school would not only solve the problem of the vacant lot, but could also provide options for parents living in BRIDGE apartments, said Susan Neufeld, vice president of resident programs and services for BRIDGE. “The collaboration was really around the design of the building and how to create a space that was very open and welcoming and also reflected concerns around safety and protecting the kids,” said Neufeld. The new structure offers more classrooms, a spacious faculty workroom, and a cafeteria large enough to serve the growing student body. There are also spaces to be used exclusively for small group work to eliminate distractions for students who may need additional support.
The new facility boasts a large courtyard with a slide, climbing structures, and a long stretch of pavement lined with newly planted greenery. The courtyard is surrounded by classrooms and administrative buildings on three sides, giving the playground a nested feeling, intentionally designed as a place where the students can run freely and feel secure. “If you ask the kids, they’ll tell you what they really, really missed out on at the other facility was space to play. We had a very tiny play yard, and there was no play structure on it,” said Nicol.
“A lot of the kids they serve live in apartment housing,” said Neufeld. “So for kids to have the ability to burn off energy is really, really beneficial to them, both for their physical health and their ability to focus and learn.”
Vincent Academy has no current plans for additional expansion. Now that they’re settled, Nicol says the main focus will be academic excellence. Looking back, Nicol credits the parents and community for making Vincent Academy successful. “It’s amazing when you look at how many parents are just pouring their love and their energy into making this school really great and a great place for their kids,” said Nicol. “It’s wonderful. The door is open here and people have just walked right through it.”