By Mary Spicer
Voices of young students may once again be heard in the large brick building at 640 Walnut St. previously known as East End Elementary School.
Members of Crawford Central School Board have given a go-ahead to the leasing of a section of the structure, including four classrooms and a shared space, to The Creating Landscapes Learning Center Inc., a private elementary school founded in 2011 whose two current classrooms are housed at Christ Episcopal Church on Meadville’s Diamond Park. The vote, taken during the school board’s recent monthly meeting, was 8-0; Kevin Maziarz was absent.
Following the vote, a “Buildings, Equipment and Premises Lease for Educational Use Self-Certification Application” was immediately submitted to Pennsylvania Department of Education, which must approve the lease. Once all the necessary approvals are in place, plans call for the school to begin operating in its new location at the start of the 2013-14 school year.
According to Superintendent Charlie Heller, this is an idea whose time has come.
“We’re trying to do due diligence by exploring every option and avenue,” Heller told the Tribune, referring to the district’s efforts to find a new use for the structure, which was built in 1926, renovated in 1950, expanded in 1965 and renovated in 1987 and again in 2009-10. The most recent renovation, which includes a 6,000 square foot addition, had a price tag of approximately $7 million and was completed in time for the start of the 2010-11 school year.
The school was closed at the end of the 2011-12 school year as a way to trim some $2 million from the district’s bottom line.
Without assistance from a crystal ball, no one can really be sure whether the school district will be able to use the structure in the future, Heller explained. In the meantime, however, leasing it out will help pay basic operational costs.
“Even though the building’s vacant and there’s no activity, the heat’s set at a minimum because we have to keep the pipes from freezing,” Heller said, noting that electrical service must also be maintained for security purposes. And because insuring a vacant building is an expensive proposition, “having people lease the building will save a great deal of money because it will significantly decrease the amount of insurance we have on it,” he added.
The building has been unoccupied since June 2012. According to Heller, the Pennsylvania School Code requires the district to have someone occupying the building by the beginning of the coming school year in order to continue to receive reimbursement for the most recent renovation project. The district previously qualified to receive reimbursement for approximately one-third of the overall cost of the project.
“We’re carefully examining everything until we have data to present to the school board about how to utilize the facility,” Heller added. “Whatever we do will have to be cost-effective for the district and its taxpayers.”
For the moment, everything that needs to be done on the Meadville end is complete. “Now we’re just waiting for Harrisburg,” he said. “It’s another adventure.”
A new phase
“We’re outgrowing our current space very rapidly, so the idea of us being able to grow is exciting,” Dana Hunter Yeager, Learning Center founder, educational director and classroom teacher, told the Tribune. “I’m pleased that the success the school has had over the last year and a half has led to the need for a larger space. We look forward to the growth this opportunity will afford us.”
The Learning Center is a project of Creating Landscapes, which got its start as an educational arts and sciences summer program established in 1990 and housed on the campus of Allegheny College. At the present time, Creating Landscapes’ seven learning venues, which also include teacher workshops, collaborative projects with local school districts and a community garden, reach more than 800 members of the greater Meadville community from infants to adults.
Janyce Hyatt, who founded the Creating Landscapes program almost a quarter century ago, agrees wholeheartedly with Heller that this move is an idea whose time has come.
“Aesthetics are the foundation of what we do, so where we are is important,” Hyatt told the Tribune during a recent interview.
“Certainly there are few places that rival the Episcopal church for physical beauty and architectural prowess, so we’ve been really fortunate to be in that environment,” she said. “However, we are getting bigger and bigger, and they’re constrained in terms of the amount of space they can make available to us.”
By the beginning of the coming school year, the Learning Center will need three classrooms — one kindergarten, one first- and second-grade classroom and one third- and fourth-grade classroom.
“It may be that we only ever need three classrooms,” Hyatt explained. “We don’t ever want to be a huge school — we’d like to keep our enrollment at about 50, which would mean no more than 15 in one of our multi-age classrooms. That’s what we’re thinking about in the long term. But right now, if we’re going to continue to evolve and honor our commitment to the students we have, we’re going to need three classrooms. There’s no way we could do that in the church. They just don’t have the space.”
Faced with a dilemma, “we looked and looked and looked and looked,” Hyatt said. “And then one of our board members said, ‘What about East End School?’” With that, the process began.
According to Heller, even more answers to that question are expected to emerge during coming months.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.