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Charter school could make historic Idaho Falls building home

O.E. Bell Building in Idaho Falls. Photo courtesy of Idaho Ed News.

O.E. Bell Building in Idaho Falls. Photo courtesy of Idaho Education News.

A charter school called Alturas International Academy has proposed to open its doors in 2017 in the O.E. Bell building, a former junior high school built that opened in 1927 near downtown Idaho Falls.

The school would have 250 elementary students and would be open to students from Idaho Falls and surrounding districts, said former Idaho Falls district teacher Michelle Ball, who will be an instructor and administrator at Alturas. Ball spoke at a meeting June 6 organized by Erstad Architects, the Boise firm that would handle renovations, and Building Hope, a nonprofit organization that helps charter schools secure loans for facilities. Terry Ryan, the CEO of a Boise charter school group called Bluum, also attended.

The building was renovated for office space in 1999. The city had asked Erstad to hold the meeting to gather public input. About 25 of the people there were parents of prospective Alturas students, Idaho EdNews reported.

After failed attempts last year to open the charter school under the Idaho Falls district’s direction, Ball and some parents at Sunnyside Elementary School organized a home school that used the same teaching methods Alturas will adopt.

“It’s kind of like if you want something done, you do it yourself,” said parent and Alturas board member Candise Gilbert.

Building Hope is now in the process of purchasing the building, said Dru Damico, vice president of real estate development. Alturas will then lease the building from Building Hope at an interest rate of “between 5 and 6 percent” for five years, Damico added.

Alturas plans to purchase the school from Building Hope after the five-year period, which will give the school time to grow financially, said Alturas principal Steven Andrew.

Bluum will subsidize the lease for Alturas if needed.

“Bluum is sort of a fallback for us,” said Alturas board member Jared Allen.

The former Melaleuca building on Yellowstone in Idaho Falls will house the new charter in the coming school year. The Grand Teton Council, which now owns the former Melaleuca building, has offered Alturas a home for the 2017-18 school year, if plans to occupy the O.E. Bell building fall through, Allen said.

Ball and other Alturas teachers will instruct multi-age classes of first-through-third graders or fourth-through-sixth graders. Students will be placed into learning groups based on assessment data, rather than age.

“Students show substantial growth under the multi-age classroom model because they are taught at their instructional levels throughout the day,” said Ball.

Other aspects of the curriculum include project-based learning, second-language acquisition and four-day school weeks. Fridays will be used for teacher collaboration, Ball said.

A final decision on zoning the O.E. Bell building for school use will likely be reached at a July 19 public hearing, said one Idaho Falls city official. The city could approve or deny the application, or postpone the plan.

“We are mostly concerned about things like building access, parking and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood,” said Kerry Beutler, assistant planning director for the city.

Though no plans are in place to add square footage to the O.E. Bell building, Alturas board members hope to convert nearly half the existing parking lot into a playground – increasing the demand for parking spaces on the surrounding city streets.

The city of Idaho Falls requires that elementary and junior high schools designate one parking space for every classroom in a school, plus five additional spaces overall.

But the school has received funding for busing, Ball said. A proposed dropoff area behind the building will also ease parking demands.

Andrew Erstad of Erstad Architects said the O.E. Bell building is a prime location – primarily because it once was a school. He pointed to the gymnasium, now lined with office cubicles, and hallways still equipped to accommodate lockers. The number of restrooms would need to be doubled, Erstad said.

According to county records, Hannah’s Holdings, LLC owns the property. A law firm and an architectural firm are among the building’s current lessees. These parties “understand” that they will likely have to make way for the school in 2017-18, said Damico. One of the lessees, Arugula Deli, which occupies a portion of the basement, could stay – and possibly provide lunch options for students.


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