January 9, 2017
Santa Fe South Schools, a K-12 charter that serves 2,400 students, could grow by as many as 500 students when the high school moves into a 157,000-square-foot building on the grounds of the old Crossroads Mall.
Superintendent Chris Brewster confirmed the $1.8 million purchase by Charter Schools Development Corp., which provides capital financing for charter schools in low-income communities.
The structure will cost $10 million to renovate and should be ready in time for the 2017-18 school year, according to Brewster and others who worked on the deal.
"This is two hard years of work by a number of parties to secure this," he said.
Santa Fe South High School currently serves about 700 students who attend classes at three locations, including the former Shields Heights Elementary School at 301 SE 38.
Brewster described the 36,000-square-foot facility built in 1908 as "cramped" and said the additional space will make it possible to provide students with "simple, high-efficiency classrooms and science labs, a cafeteria and commons."
"This may not be exceptional for other schools but it will be exceptional for us," he said. "We're finally going to be able to honor the work of our teachers and kids."
A second charter school is expected to occupy the top floor of the two-story building once occupied by Montgomery Ward, but Brewster said it was too soon to identify a potential tenant because a deal had not been finalized.
Charter schools are public schools established by contract with sponsors and often promote a specific curriculum and learning style. Charters are privately run but publicly funded schools that emphasize small class sizes, extended hours, close student-teacher relationships and a strong sense of community.
However, a charter's ability to serve is restricted by space limitations and a lack of proper facilities funding.
Santa Fe South, which started in 2001 with 120 children in a church basement, serves students at nine locations across south Oklahoma City. Those locations include a former dance hall, hardware store, armory and YMCA.
Brewster characterized those sites as "substandard."
"We do not have the same funding streams as traditional public schools have to build buildings, improve infrastructure, buy buses and upgrade technology," he said. "We are very well-situated. We didn't cut any teachers or lose any programs, but it is incredibly hard to get into facilities with no facilities dollars earmarked for charter schools."
To that end, Santa Fe South secured a $3.3 million loan from a federal program that offers new market tax credits as a way to stimulate growth in low-income or otherwise depressed neighborhoods, along with a $1 million grant. The school secured a second loan from a national lender to cover construction costs.
Brent Bushey, executive director of the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center, assisted Brewster in his quest to expand.
Bushey said the significance of the new building is its location in south Oklahoma City, where schools are overcrowded.
"In some ways this is kind of a release valve for the community," he said. "For public schools it's a different way to think about how to solve your facility challenges. In this case, this looks to be a more cost-effective solution."
Brewster said a vast number of Santa Fe South students come from high-poverty environments and are learning English as a second language but continue to excel in the classroom.
He points to a nearly 94 percent graduation rate among Hispanic students and a 98 percent graduation rate overall.
"To have the success that my teachers and principals have had with extremely limited resources is exceptional," he said. "However, we are not satisfied that we've been able to realize our students' full potential."
Brewster, meanwhile, is looking to add between 400 and 500 high school students, which means he will need to hire more teachers.