CHUBBUCK – It’s time for the big kids to get a place of their own.
Chubbuck’s Connor Academy charter school is expanding by building a new school – Alpine Academy – to serve students in grades 6-8. The existing building, built in 2015, currently houses 540 students in grades K-8.
With a waiting list of about 200, the charter school is ready to grow.
The entire project, which includes a new school building (with a price tag of $12 million), a road extension, and refinancing the current school, is slated to cost $18.9 million.
About 40 teachers, students, staff, board members, and community members gathered Monday at a groundbreaking ceremony for Alpine Academy.
Seventh grader Gabe Adamson said he couldn’t wait to be in the school’s first graduating class.
“There will be more opportunities to make friends and it will be more of a middle school experience,” he said.
The new school will be better suited to help middle school students transition to high school, according to Joel Lovstedt, principal and superintendent of Connor Academy.
“This will help them feel like it’s a school made for them,” Lovstedt said. “Middle school kids want to feel like they’re advancing and taking a step up from elementary school.”
Features of the new school will include a more flexible layout in classrooms, a dedicated art room, a weight room, a library, and a full-service kitchen.
Megan Eddie, the school’s librarian, said she’s excited to have a second library in the middle school. The extra space will mean more room for 6th-8th grade books, which currently only get a few designated shelves in the library.
The kitchen in the new building will also allow the schools to provide hot lunches for students. The current building does not have a kitchen, so students bring their own cold lunches each day.
Lovstedt plans to have middle schoolers help clean the lunchroom and bathrooms next year so they take pride in their new school and contribute to keeping it in good shape.
And once the new school is built, each elementary grade level will grow from two classrooms to three.
But getting started on the new building hasn’t come without its challenges.
Financing, inflation, and staffing are all obstacles on the way to a new school
For one, charters aren’t allowed to ask voters for bonds to build schools. With property taxes kept out of reach, charters must use their own budgets or turn to other alternatives, like nonprofits, for support.
Building Hope, a nonprofit organization “dedicated to increasing educational opportunities for K-12 students”, has supported Connor Academy by helping them secure the commercial loan for its current building, which helped it build a credit history. At the time, charters could not use the state’s credit score to get low interest rates like a traditional school could, Lovstedt said.
But in 2019, a new law created a state enhancement program, which helps charters achieve lower interest rates when borrowing. That program has had big benefits for charter schools ever since.
“We work with charters all across the country and the vast majority don’t have access to programs like this,” said Wes Olson, the senior vice president of the investment bank Piper Sandler, which helped Connor qualify and close on the fixed-rate, long-term bond it will be using to finance the new school.
Building Hope is helping to get Alpine Academy off the ground as well. The school is expected to cost about $12 million, but Lovstedt said that the disrupted supply chain and inflation make that number hard to predict.
Lovstedt said he plans to hire 10-12 full-time teachers for the new school as well as additional support staff.
“That is going to be challenging in today’s climate,” he said.
But, obstacles aside, the new school is scheduled to be completed by July 15, 2023 – just in time for its inaugural class.
“The students are very excited, and I expect they’ll be more excited as they see the building come to life,” Lovstedt said.
Connor Academy is known for providing its students with a quiet, structured learning environment. Students walk single-file in the hallways and wear uniforms (except for on casual Mondays – if they’re earned).
They also take special classes three times a week, such as P.E., Spanish, and a computer class.
There are no bells, and all students participate in recess at some point throughout the day.
The school’s learning environment allows for flexibility, timeliness, and focus, Lovstedt said.