Outside the former Holy Trinity United Methodist Church, west of Buchtel High School and across Copley Road, a sign announces limited seating available for the city’s newest charter school.
As the unique agriculture-based school opened on Monday, however, seating wasn’t a problem: The goal was 150 students, only 35 were enrolled, and only two-thirds of those showed up on the first day.
“Everyone I’ve talked to about the concept of the school is behind it. But you have to be up and running before they jump in. I realize that,” said John Hairston, co-founder of the Next Frontier Academy, serving students in grades 7-9 this year.
The school sent fliers to the community and proponents knocked on doors. Hairston, with two other undisclosed investors, spent $22,000 on furniture, thousands on books, materials and rent, $9,000 to paint the interior of the 60-year-old church and an unexpected $10,000 to upgrade the building’s electrical system, completed last weekend.
They haven’t financed it alone.
The state has made three payments of nearly $30,000 apiece, the last on Tuesday, on the assumption that the school would have as many as 75 students. Because there are only 35 students scattered throughout the 13,000-square-foot building, there’s plenty of room to grow.
However, if the projected enrollment doesn’t materialize, the state money has to be returned.
“So, we have to be careful,” Hairston said, noticeably anxious as he stood in a side stairwell the Friday before opening, as construction crews addressed a leaky roof and half-painted hallways.
Ladders and equipment were throughout the building.
The school also intends to build a greenhouse and install a chicken coop, but that hasn’t happened yet.
The plan is to expand to the 12th grade over the next few years, something few charter schools attempt because high school students are more expensive to educate than elementary children.
School officials said they expect enrollment to rise when quarterly report cards go out for children in Akron public schools. They’re banking on parents of some underperforming students to consider a transfer.
“This is ‘Community School 101,’ ” said Tarik West, the school’s principal.
A former principal at Canton and Akron charter schools, his goal is to teach students who have struggled.
“The average kid here has not experienced academic success. That’s what we want to bring to them,” said West.
His face appeared on enrollment fliers that circulated in the community over the summer. In Buchtel country, he said, “We want to be the choice.”
As parents choose charter schools, the dollars that otherwise would have gone to the public school, such as Akron, are transferred to the charter school. Like many charter schools, Next Frontier will be managed by a for-profit education company.
“We don’t have deep pockets, and we’re not looking for deep pockets,” said Michael Hoffman, a Cleveland businessman with an office at the school. “That’s not why we got into this.”
Hoffman launched Blue Lake Educational Management LLC to handle day-to-day operations. His company employs West and four teachers, mostly local college graduates with less than 10 years of experience.
Hoffman said he’s not interested in buying the property out from under the church in order to turn a profit and paying rent to himself, as more high-profile companies have done.
He said he’d like to expand to other locations — if the Copley Road school can prove to the community and the state that it can make a difference in an urban student’s life.
The school has yet to apply for federal tax-exempt status and, therefore, cannot apply for many state and federal grants. Securing a facility late in the game has put added pressure on investors, staff and teachers, some of whom attempted to decorate rooms amid the 11th-hour construction effort.
But West says he’s up to the challenge.
“I should be able to make some significant gains, because we have some smaller classrooms,” he said, standing outside a classroom of two students.
In West’s summation, small class sizes are an educational blessing and a funding curse.
With experience working for Imagine Schools, a for-profit charter school operator, West has always been given the management mantra: “Market, market, market.”
He believes now that it shouldn’t be about the students you don’t have. Instead, he asked himself: “What are you going to do with the kids you have here in the first place?”
West mixes optimism and reality. Rooms are sparsely furnished. Decorations are in short order. The school mostly has space — and room to grow.
“I want to put [a student’s] hand in the dirt. Right here. Right now,” West said, motioning outside to a blacktop driveway where students might one day grow something. “If I have anything to do with it, we’re going to have a greenhouse this year.”
Plans for the curriculum include a chicken coop where tall weeds now cover a half-buried tire in the fenced-in backyard. Seventh-graders will be expected to harvest chicken eggs and sell them to eighth-graders, blending business, horticulture and agriculture in a “Business Incubator Program” to achieve career and college readiness benchmarks that the state requires of high school graduates.
“We’re going to do what we said we would,” West asserts.
“I was most impressed with the fact that he has a strong vision and plan to carry out that vision,” said Michele Stubbs-Thompson, who has four children attending Akron Public Schools, two in college and an eighth-grader at Next Frontier.
“For this particular child I felt this would be the best fit,” she said.
Jerusalem Weems agrees. Her ninth-grade daughter lacked motivation at an online charter school last year. She’s also among the students West talks about who haven’t enjoyed a positive academic experience.
“I don’t know if she’s bored in school,” Weems said. “I don’t know. I’m just trying to find the best solution for my child.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.