Students arrive at Community School’s new building |

Students arrive at Community School’s new building

Jeanne McGovern
The Aspen Times
The Tibetan Buddhist Monks of the Gaden Shartse Monastery bless the new Aspen Community School building Monday, the first day of classes at the K-8 charter school in Woody Creek.
Jeanne McGovern/The Aspen Times |

When Aspen Community School Principal Jim Gilchrist asked his students what they hoped to bring from their old school building into their new school building, the answers came at him rapid fire: caring, opportunity, ideas, sharing, brightness, cheerfulness, coziness and pillows.

Gilchrist, who was addressing the 135-member student body in their monthly all-school meeting on the first day of classes Monday, was happy to accept all the suggestions — except one.

“I’ve got some bad news: We couldn’t bring the pillows. They were crawling with who knows what,” he laughed.

The joke was an apt metaphor for what has recently transpired at the Aspen Community School, a kindergarten through 8th-grade charter school in Woody Creek, where a 13,614-square-foot schoolhouse permanently replaced a 42-year-old log structure that had fallen into deep disrepair. The old building, which Gilchrist said, “was just not up to code, … that’s the bottom line,” earned the school the distinction of being one of Colorado’s lowest-performing public school facilities (though the school was one of the state’s higher performing schools on the academic side).

The unveiling Monday of the redeveloped campus also included a 7,630-square-foot gymnasium (that also can serve as a community hall) and 25,000 square feet of grass playing fields. Four 600-square-foot employee-housing units and a pedestrian-centric reorientation of the campus are other hallmarks of the $9.1 million project, funding for which came from a $4.2 million state challenge grant that was met by $4.9 million in community giving.

“This was truly a grassroots campaign,” said Lara Whitley, communications consultant for the I Believe campus campaign. “We turned the fundraising model on its head with this.”

In fact, the entire process of redeveloping the campus was community-oriented.

“We wanted to respect the Woody Creek tradition and community, so what we’ve created is funky, rustic,” said Gilchrist, pointing out the three sections of the building comprising wood, stone and metal. “But it is up to code, and our goal is that it will last for another 40 to 50 years.”

Another goal set forth by Gilchrist and his team was the inclusion of a true community space in the school, a cornerstone of the old building and the school’s philosophy.

“It can be hard to find a sense of community in schools. Our core concept is community, so we wanted to create a space that reflected this value,” he said. The school’s Central Area, a high-ceiling, bright, open space in the center of the building, with views of surrounding pastures and mountains, accomplishes this because, “It’s not just a central area in name; everyone has to pass through here so it becomes a place to work together. … It’s about being together.”

And while students, faculty, parents and others — including the Tibetan Buddhist monks of the Gaden Shartse Monastery, who blessed the new building Monday — joined together to begin a new school year in a new school building, there is still work to be done.

“Today we are celebrating our accomplishments to date, but we’ll have to get back to work,” said Whitley, referring to Phase 2 of the redevelopment that includes replacing the school’s iconic tower (which had to come down due to structural instability), building an outdoor amphitheater on the footprint of the former Central Area and constructing a music and science learning center, with hopes of breaking ground within the next 12 to 18 months.

But for now, “this is our sacred space,” Gilchrist said.