A group of students at the Aspen Community School broke ground Tuesday to officially begin the redevelopment of its 25-acre campus in rural Woody Creek.
At the same time, the school publically launched the final phase of its “I Believe” capital campaign to raise the final $4 million needed to cover the aspects of the $13.1 million dollar project that are ineligible for state funding.
On Tuesday, students and teachers wore colorful t-shirts that included the slogan “Don’t Stop Believin!” to correlate with the final stretch of fundraising for the school.
“Right now, our school is too small to integrate the programs we currently have, let alone future programs,” said community school Principal Jim Gilchrist. “It’s great to look around today and see all this support from our community and from the students.”
While the community school regularly ranks as one of Colorado’s highest-performing schools, it operates in one of the state’s lowest-performing facilities. In the most recent Colorado School Facilities Index, the community school ranked in the bottom 1 percent of all the state’s 1,689 public schools.
The groundbreaking signified the beginning of construction for a 13,614-square-foot main school building and a 7,630-square-foot gymnasium that will double as a community hall.
Phase 1 construction will also include classroom and office furnishings, a new bus arrival area, an improved water system and upgraded septic system. Phase 1 construction is expected to span one school year, with the gym scheduled to be ready by next January and the main school building by spring of 2015.
Gilchrist began teaching at the community school 28 years ago and has been principal for the past 13 years.
“This school was designed for 75 or 80 students to attend,” Gilchrist said. “We currently have 127 students enrolled. Our staff has more than doubled since I became principal. It’s obvious we’ve outgrown our current facility.”
The school made history in May of 2013 when it met a $4.2 million state challenge grant for new facilities, known as BEST (Building Excellent Schools Today) funding, That total, combined with $4.9 million in community giving, raised the campaign total to $9.1 million.
“We’ve come a long way on this journey,” said Skye Skinner, the executive director of Compass, the nonprofit that runs the public charter school. “In eight months, we raised $9 million. We all rallied, and no one did this alone. We had 650 unique donors, including our first million-dollar donation alongside 421 gifts of $250 or less. It was a true grassroots effort.”
Skinner said Phase 2 of the campaign to raise the final $4 million needed to totally complete the project is technically underway already, although part of the Tuesday celebration was to make sure the public knows that there is still money to be raised. In order to keep the construction on schedule to be completed by the end of 2015, the school needs to raise the final $4 million by Dec. 31, 2014.
Part of the BEST funding requirements states that the school must raise the final funding on its own without the option of using bonds or a mill levy.
“Some people have the assumption we’re done raising money,” Skinner said. “We’re not done by any means. Psychologically, raising $4 million seems very doable. We’re not at the starting gate anymore.”
In April, the community school received two gifts totaling $250,000 from the John Denver Aspenglow Fund to kick-off Phase 2 of the fundraising campaign. The donation was made in the memory of Denver, and will provide vital funding for the school’s new music learning center, which will be named the “John Denver Music and Performing Arts Hall.”
Other Phase 2 additions include campus-wide energy efficiency upgrades, improved green spaces that would include playing fields, outdoor classrooms and a sledding hill, four new employee-housing units and a Compass administration building remodel.
Polly Whitcomb taught poetry at the community school for many years and was involved with the school’s theater program. She’s also part of the original group of parents who founded the school. Whitcomb was a guest speaker during the groundbreaking ceremony.
“For 44 years, our community school has not been afraid to fail or succeed,” Whitcomb said. “Countless events have been celebrated on this mesa. The founding members of this school had a utopian dream of a new school order. The one thing they all agreed on was including the word ‘community’ in the name, and it was the right choice.”
In February, Skinner was awarded the highest honor for a charter school administrator when she was given the 2014 Charter School Leadership Award for her work securing the BEST funding grant.
“I think the community school is one of the places in this valley that represents the renegade spirit that brought us here in the first place,” Skinner said. “The community school has always celebrated the individual and creativity and will continue to do so.”
The school’s “I Believe” campaign continues to actively seek donations for the final push toward the $13.1 million goal. More information on how to donate is available at www.iBelieveACS.org.