CHARTER SCHOOLS Ex-hospital cures space needs

The old Southside Hospital has become a godsend for charter schools looking for facilities.
YOUNGSTOWN -- In a room where file folders stuffed with medical charts once towered to the ceiling, second-graders now sit at desks and brush up on their math skills.
In the emergency room where patients with injuries ranging from skinned knees to gunshot wounds once rushed by on gurneys, dozens of children now attend classes.
And in the physical therapy department where recovering patients were once nursed back to full health, teen-agers now sit at computer terminals studying to get their high-school diplomas.
The old Southside Hospital on Oakhill Avenue, which closed in 1996, may still look like a hospital on the outside and still may even have that hospital feel on the inside.
But the facility, now known as Oakhill Renaissance Place, today is more of a school than a hospital, housing all or parts of three of the city's four charter schools as well as a new Head Start program.
In all, more than 300 pupils, ages 3 to 22, are attending classes throughout the sprawling facility this school year.
"This is bringing some life back to the city of Youngstown and is a real catalyst for some real economic development and resurgence of growth," said Lynncheryl M. Gadson, executive director of the Southside Community Development Corp., the nonprofit organization that took over the closed hospital 21/2 years ago.
A little less than half of the building has been leased by various entities, including Specialty Hospital of Mahoning Valley, Oakhill Professional Pharmacy, Grace Place Medical Services and the Youngstown Health Department.
Schools: The center also has become a magnet for charter schools.
The Life Skills Center of Youngstown, a charter school that helps high school dropouts get their diplomas, opened in the renovated physical therapy department two years ago.
Summit Academy, a new charter school for children with attention deficit disorder, is to open this week in the renovated emergency room.
And Youngstown Community School, a charter school at the Millcreek Children's Center on Essex Street, is conducting second-grade classes in the former medical records department until the school's new building is ready to open early next year.
For charter school operators looking for clean and safe facilities without much startup costs, the old hospital has become a godsend.
"One of the hardest things for a new charter school is going out and finding a building," Jim Winkleman, chief facilitation officer for Summit Academy, said from the old hospital last week. "A place like this suits us just right."
Charter schools, known in Ohio as community schools, are privately operated schools funded by the state like traditional public schools. There are about 1,800 nationwide, led by Arizona with nearly 350. Ohio has 71, including four in Youngstown and one in Warren.
Since most states, including Ohio, provide no money to start up charter schools for facilities, operators many times are left scrambling to find suitable buildings.
Where some are: New Century Charter High School in Chapel Hill, N.C., opened in 1998 in an old movie theater, according to the Charter Friends National Network. Atlantis Charter School in Fall River, Mass., is in a convent. Northland Preparatory Academy in Flagstaff, Ariz., opened in a former bar.
In Ohio, Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy is housed in the former U.S. Food and Drug Administration building, according to the Ohio Department of Education. The Summit Academy in Parma is in the second floor of an old racquetball court. Life Skills Center of Warren is in an old craft store.
Clint Satow, head of the Ohio Community School Center, said state lawmakers made some headway this year in rectifying the facilities issue by developing a $10 million loan guarantee program for charter schools.
The schools, most of which have no access to credit, can use the fund as collateral to qualify for loans, Satow said.
But he said lawmakers need to go a step further. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, should have access to school facility funds directly from the state, he said.
The Ohio School Facilities Commission has doled out $1.3 billion to rebuild public school buildings throughout Ohio in the last four years, but charter schools get none of it.
"The charters are just completely cut out of that loop," Satow said.
The result? Most charter schools must raise their own money for facilities.
In Youngstown: Eagle Heights Academy in Youngstown, for example, has raised about $1 million in private funds to renovate the 90-year-old former South High School.
Youngstown Community School has borrowed $4 million to build its new school and has received about $1.7 million in donations and pledges to cover the cost, said Sister Jerome Corcoran, who operates the school.
"It's a very strenuous thing to raise money for a school," Sister Jerome said. "It's possible, but it's tough."
"I think because charter schools seem to be wanted by some parents, I think those parents will get to their legislators in Columbus and throughout the country and insist that charter schools be on a little more equal basis with the traditional public schools" in terms of funding for school buildings, she added.
In the meantime, facilities such as the old Southside Hospital remain attractive options for many charter schools.
"It's difficult for charter schools, but we think this is a great situation for us," said Winkleman, whose school will serve 60 students in the hospital's former emergency room.
"We think it's exciting to be in this building."

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