Written by The Business Journal Staff
The charter school’s co-founders Shiela Skibbie and Valerie Blackburn said they knew from the start that the charter school would need a larger campus.
“In December 2013, before the end of the first semester of our very first year, we already knew we were going to outgrow this building before our lease was up,” Blackburn said. “We started looking immediately and it took us this long, but what we’ve learned is that is a pretty quick pace compared to many charter schools that go looking for a facility. We began working with a broker and found a very sympathetic developer downtown who worked very hard to know what we needed and understand charter schools.”
That developer, Tutelian and Co., worked diligently to ensure the Parker Nash building would not only serve the needs of the school, but also maintain its historic integrity.
Tutelian’s Construction and CAD Designer John De La Cruz said he put pen to paper a year and half ago to do the conceptual design. The whole idea was to use the exterior as a shell for a brand new interior building. While it would have been easier for engineers to just build an entirely new building behind the historic façade, De La Cruz made it his mission to ensure those exterior elements — namely the exposed brick and gorgeous ground-to-ceiling arched windows — were a part of the interior as well.
“For me, keeping the nostalgia of the building and the character of the building is probably the most important part of it, and in the design process, that is what I tried to do,” De La Cruz said.
At the same time, De La Cruz had to create additional space to make the second floor usable.
“At one time, when the building was first built, the second floor was actually a mezzanine that would house all the auto parts and equipment, and some people have said they used to place a Parker Nash car behind one of the windows, where you could actually see it from the street,” De La Cruz said.
Altogether, the improved Parker Nash building will provide 37,000 square-feet of usable classroom and office space. Kepler currently operates out of a mere 15,000 square-foot space, although Blackburn said they are frequently able to use the Cornerstone Church conference center next door during lunch and for events.
“Right now we share space so the idea of having our own campus and own rooms is exciting for all of our teachers, parents and students,” Skibbie said.
The new campus will feature a library and a multi-purpose room, which will be used as a cafeteria, assembly room and performance space, but most of the space will be dedicated to the classrooms.
“The range in square footage in the classrooms is where there is the most difference,” Principal Christine Montanez said. “Our current classrooms average between 400 and 500 square feet and at the new building, out smallest classroom will be 715 square-feet and the largest is 1,000.”
Each grade at Kepler, K-8, will have two classrooms. There are also additional classrooms for a science lab, a performing arts classroom, and a classroom for woodworking. Kepler currently partners with Fresno Ideaworks, which has been storing the school’s woodworking equipment, and Cornerstone Church, where students have been able to practice plays and dance routines on stage.
While Kepler’s square footage is growing, its number of students will stay capped at 472 — 48 students per grades 1-8 and 44 students in grades TK and Kindergarten.
While students will get to enjoy all the amenities of a new campus, moving just a block away allows them to stay downtown and learn from their surroundings.
“We knew we wanted to stay in walking distance because one interesting part of our program is we encourage classes to have walking trips to places in the downtown area,” Blackburn said. “Our parents sign a permission slip that says our kids can go walking anywhere within a 2.5 mile radius of our school so they can visit interesting sites like the park, downtown library and City Hall.”
Learning within the walls of a historical site will also give Kepler kids a unique experience.
“A lot of kids don’t get to see the actual history of Downtown Fresno and they get to see how it all started,” De La Cruz said.
Tutelian and Company has been involved in several projects to revitalize historical sites in Downtown Fresno, most notably the project to restore The Grand building at 1401 Fulton Street. While revitalizing older buildings is a challenge, company President Cliff Tutelian, who was born and raised in Fresno, said he has a passion for such projects.
“While the preservation of historic buildings such as The Grand Tower, Parker Nash and Civic Center buildings are more complex and challenging than new builds, they are the physical components of what make up the fabric of Downtown Fresno,” Tutelian said. “I see the enormous benefit to the community in bringing a synergy of uses back to downtown and to that end the renovation of these buildings is part of that effort.
While the building itself is impressive, Kepler is also gaining 3,000 square-feet of green space across the street on Broadway — another slice of land owned by Tutelian. The outdoor play area is a huge bonus for Kepler, as students currently don’t have grass to play on and spend all their outdoor time on a blacktop in a covered parking lot.
“Until you’ve lived for four years without grass for your kids to play on, you don’t understand how excited we are to have grass,” Blackburn said. “Windows and grass are the big things we’re excited about, which most people take for granted.”
A ribbon cutting ceremony for the charter school will be held at 3:30 p.m. March 30.