PHOENIX — Children First Academy, the former Thomas J. Pappas School for homeless and disadvantaged students, is moving, saying it needs room to expand.
The school is spending $6 million to buy and renovate a vacant Food City building, near South 16th and East Mohave streets, and plans to move in during the spring, said Tom Crewse, executive director of the Children First Foundation. Remodeling will begin in September.
The school, currently in a former Volkswagen dealership in central Phoenix, is run by a non-profit and accepts donations from corporations and individuals. It has operated at North Sixth Avenue and West Fillmore Street since Sequoia Schools took it over in 2008. The Pappas schools were shuttered after losing $2.9 million amid accusations of bid rigging and nepotism.
The new building is near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, but sound tests revealed that it is quieter than at its current location along Seventh Avenue, school officials said.
The new facility has 4.5 acres and will allow the school to expand by adding a ninth-grade class next year.
Renovations will include:
— Adding a playground and baseball field.
— Building a full-size gymnasium.
— Adding a medical and dental clinic that will be open to the public on the weekends.
— Building and outfitting a computer lab, with 30 computers and Wi-Fi capability.
— Lowering the ceiling and building classrooms, offices and conference rooms.
— Adding an "incentive" room with iPads, books and comfortable seating like in a coffee shop.
"It's really hard to get these kids to come to school," said Principal Donna Driggers.
The school recently added an eighth-grade class to its Tempe campus. It hopes to add ninth grade to its Phoenix campus next year and other high-school grades in the future.
The new Phoenix campus will have double the number of classrooms. The new gym will allow administrators to have all-school assemblies recognizing students for academic, attendance and character achievement, Driggers said.
It will have an indoor food and clothing closet. The closet currently is in a storage shed outside the main buildings.
"The (current) property is not very usable for education," Driggers said.
"It isn't ideal where we are now," Crewse said. "We still have the old ramp from the Volkswagen dealership."
The school is not energy-efficient but that is not the biggest problem, according to Crewse.
"It just doesn't give the impression of being a school," he said.
The school also does not have any room to grow at its current location. It has 333 students, up from 310 last year.
The school's small fleet of buses travel as many as 450 miles a day transporting students. The new site is more centrally located, but students come from every part of the Valley.
"That's the problem with the homeless population," Crewse said. "They bounce around a lot, and when we get students, they typically are two to three years behind."
Students can improve two or more years academically in one calendar year, Crewse said.
"But we can't get there without dealing with emotional needs, the whole child, as we like to say," he said.
Students make academic strides focusing on academics and not making excuses for why they can't complete schoolwork, homework or score well on tests, Crewse said.
This year, the school has a waiting list in every grade except first grade. It will add more classes with its move and expansion.
"The new facility is going to create an atmosphere that is different, a positive atmosphere," Driggers said.
"We're going to have an environment that exceeds what these children are used to. And the environment alone can improve their academic performance."
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com