New charter school comes to life inside former mall store
By LEAH WILLINGHAM
Jul. 31, 2018
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Every time Stephanie Alicea walks into her new charter school, she finds something to repurpose.
One day, it was rollout storage drawers that could be made into cubbies. Another, it was fitting rooms she imagined to be quiet study quarters.
That's one benefit to opening a school in the shell of an old department store, Alicea says.
Alicea's Capital City Charter School is being built in the former Bon-Ton men's department store at the Steeplegate Mall in Concord.
Alicea, who is both the school's founder and head, estimates that about $25,000 worth of furniture and equipment was left behind in the department store — which officially closed last spring — including tables, shelves, spacious bathrooms, a generator and safes.
"There's plenty of great stuff here if you just take the time to look," she said, walking around a pile of wooden shelves that will be disassembled to make desk partitions. "You just have to be creative about it, and let go of your idea of what you think things should be."
Alicea said the first day of classes at Capital City Charter School will be Sept. 4, after Labor Day. In the meantime, Alicea has been cleaning up the store and holding weekly information sessions at the mall for interested families.
Capital City has been approved by the state Department of Education as an alternative public school for any child in the state, Alicea said.
About 25 students are signed up so far, and the school has been getting two to four sign-ups a week. Some students come from further away, like Henniker and Epsom, but most are from the Concord/Penacook area. Her goal is to have 30 to 60 middle schoolers sign up for the upcoming academic year.
"I know it's a store and it's a little odd, but I want it to be a warm, inviting and nice place for children and families," she said as she gave a tour to a group of three families around the store.
Alicea received the keys to the store less than two weeks ago, but she's already decided what the layout of the space will look like.
The middle of the store will be the library, or "Learning Commons," and is set up with old merchandise displays — now turned into bookshelves — and adorned with young adult fiction and textbooks.
Near one entrance is an indoor play area, where she plans to put activities like corn hole and yard dice. Near another is an area where lockers will go, as well as the guidance and health offices. Administration, where Alicea will be working, will be located in Bon-Ton's old storage and gift wrapping department.
Sixth, seventh and eighth grade are still largely open spaces marked with pieces of paper that read "6," ''7" or "8." Over the course of the next month, they will be filled with tables, desks and chairs.
Alicea first had the idea to open a charter school about four years ago, when she was working on a project for her doctorate degree at New England College. She wanted to design a charter school that would incorporate community service into students' traditional educational experience.
"Service learning isn't just teaching the stuff that you get from the books. It's creating a whole child and teaching a whole child," Alicea said. "It's not just, 'What's the hypotenuse of a triangle?' It's teaching community and respect for others."
Denise and Peter Ivas of Penacook said Alicea's focus on community service was a big reason they chose Capital City for their 12-year-old daughter, Madeline. They said Madeline felt bored at Merrimack Valley Middle School, and was looking for a more enriching educational environment.
"Every day was such a struggle. She would come home hating school," Peter said. "This is an opportunity to do something that's completely different. It's a refreshing approach to education — something out of the box."
Leila Pouliot of Boscawen, who was on a tour with Alicea last week, said she had never seen her daughter, Meredith, who is going into the seventh grade, so enthusiastic about school.
"She's looking forward to starting school, rather than dreading the first day," Pouliot said.
Alicea said it's her hope that her charter school, which is geared to serve sixth through eighth graders in its first year, will expand to high schoolers within five years. The school was approved to educate as many as 330 students by the state Department of Education.
Alicea said she thinks the Steeplegate Mall, which has been losing business in recent years, will be a great place for the school community to grow. The mall will soon house a trampoline park, and is the home of the local theater company, Hatbox Theatre.
"We're going to find ways to include each other," Alicea said. "Maybe the theater group can come here and perform or we can go there and they can teach the kids their trade. It's very community oriented."
The staff of the charter school will consist of Alicea and an assistant head of school, who has already been hired, and a teaching team. Alicea said she's already had a lot of interest in teaching positions at the school, and that the official hiring process will begin Aug. 10.
If there are 30 kids that sign up to attend the school, Alicea said she will hire two teachers. If there are 60 children who sign up, she will hire four.
Steeplegate's Assistant General Manager Pearl Aznive said the mall staff is excited to see where the school is headed.
"It's a new adventure — something different," Aznive said. "It's hard to know what will happen, but we're really hoping they do well."
The next information session for Capital City Charter School will be Tuesday, July 31 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Information from: Concord Monitor, http://www.concordmonitor.com