Animas High School planning for relocation to a new home

Charter announces temporary, longer-term plans in Twin Buttes

The current location of Animas High School is in a former strip mall at the intersection of north Main Avenue and 32nd Street. Enlarge photo

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

The current location of Animas High School is in a former strip mall at the intersection of north Main Avenue and 32nd Street.

In a move that may foretell a coming of age for Animas High School, Executive Head Michael Ackerman announced Thursday that the school will be moving from its current home in a bedraggled former strip mall on north Main Avenue to bucolic Twin Buttes during the summer.

In a phone interview just minutes before signing the final paperwork with Twin Buttes, Ackerman said the public charter school had tried and failed to move every year since its 2009 opening and that it occasionally felt like “this day would never come.”

Ackerman announced the move in the Rochester Hotel’s garden before a crowd of giddy parents and students, hailing the tolerance of Dan Hopper, AHS’s erstwhile landlord, noting that when the school first opened, it did so “without a certificate of occupancy for the first three days.”

Though news releases had promoted the event as a mystery announcement, Ackerman acknowledged in an interview that it was common knowledge AHS was bursting at the seams and that its contract with Twin Buttes was the “worst-kept secret in Durango.”

Ackerman said there were many reasons AHS needed to relocate, noting the school’s highway location often meant noise. But the big reason is student enrollment, which has expanded.

Whereas this year the school has 234 students, it already has registered 304 for next year.

Ackerman said its maximum capacity, as determined by Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, was 260, “and I don’t know how we’d fit that many, it’s so tight as it is.”

The school will move to Twin Buttes during the summer. Come September, AHS students will occupy two 12,000-square-foot temporary buildings that currently are “being prefabricated in Denver” and are destined to arrive here by truck in the coming months.

In the meantime, AHS’s board is securing funding to construct a permanent building on the Twin Buttes property.

The school will hear if it won a $13 million BEST grant in June.

Ackerman said the catch to winning the BEST grant is that “we’d immediately need to have our financial matching dollars in hand at the end of the year and break ground in spring,” meaning the new building could be completed within 18 months.

While that’s a dense, if not wishful timetable, Ackerman said AHS might win a later round of BEST grant funding, and if the state Legislature still fails to secure funding for programs that benefit AHS, “we’ll be going on a $10 million capital campaign all on our own, dependent on our donors.”

At Thursday’s announcement party, Ackerman said the move filled him with “an overwhelming sense of joy, accomplishment and admiration.”

He reminded parents that it was only a few years ago in 2008 that he was visiting them, “making balloon animals, saying, ‘I’m not creepy. Come to Animas, to a school that doesn’t really yet exist!’”

While charter schools became something of a craze after No Child Left Behind altered public-school funding, most national studies have found that despite increasing “school choice,” charter schools tend to tie and even underperform in comparison to public schools.

So far, this hasn’t proved the case with AHS, which, like many Durango School District 9-R schools, uses a project-based learning model.

According to Colorado School Grades, which issues report cards to schools across the state by grading their performance on a curve, in 2012, AHS improved its score from a B- to a B. Durango High School, the largest school in the county, went from C+ to a C.

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