AS FEATURED IN DAILY BREEZE
By Rob Kuznia
Published: May 23, 2013
Environmental Charter School celebrated the opening of its third campus Wednesday, this one a middle school just outside Gardena. The new campus, which opened in April, serves 360 students in what was an abandoned church at 812 W. 165th Place in Harbor Gateway.
“It had been defaced with graffiti, with broken windows – it was just dilapidated,” said the school’s founder and executive director, Alison Suffet Diaz. “Now it’s a 16,000-square-foot school with 12 classrooms in a beautifully designed building.”
The Environmental Charter franchise delivers a green-focused curriculum to urban students. It began in 2001 with a high school in Lawndale. That campus, too, opened on a former church site, though it ultimately moved to a bigger home a few miles away.
Environmental Charter High now serves 500-plus students on a campus that boasts cutting-edge science labs, an outdoor theater, a chicken coop and a student-made stream stocked with fish. It has won numerous accolades over the years, drawing repeated praise from the Obama administration, a big supporter of the charter movement. In 2010, Environmental Charter opened a middle school in Inglewood – again, on an abandoned private-school campus of a church.
Although the Gardena-area campus is Environmental Charter’s third location, not all three are up and running. The Inglewood campus on West Imperial Highway closed down again this spring for construction upgrades, but school officials say it will reopen in the fall.
In the meantime, the 165th Place campus is serving the 200 students from Inglewood plus an additional 160 from Gardena and Harbor Gateway, Diaz said. Come fall, the separate schools will serve those separate populations. Diaz added that she expects the Gardena-area campus to be fully enrolled next year with 360 students, due to the sizable number of families on the waiting list.
The newest campus has an open, sunlit feel, with a plant-decorated atrium cutting down the center of the two-story building. In some classrooms, a roll-up garage door serves as a wall that can open up to the outdoors. Second-story classrooms have patios that, in the next phase of construction, will be converted into greenhouses, Diaz said.
Still unfinished is the renovation of the church. The top floor will house a multipurpose room for performances and the bottom floor will include offices and a space for art projects. Diaz also envisions using the church space to hold workshops for the general public on environmental topics such as composting and rainwater collection.
Early next month, the nonprofit organization KaBOOM! will erect a playground for the school in conjunction with the CarMax Foundation. The structure will go up in one day.
All told, the charter school has spent about $6 million of the $8.5 million budgeted to fully renovate the property, Diaz said.
Environmental Charter affiliates say the new school is the first middle school in the South Bay to be designated LEED Silver by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED – which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – is the nation’s industry-standard program for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings.
Environmental Charter High was praised by the White House in 2012, when it was among 78 schools nationwide – and four throughout California – to be named a Green Ribbon School for its environmentally themed curriculum.