Cesar Chavez breaks ground on new facility

Academia Cesar Chavez’s founder Ramona A. de Rosales holds a golden shovel during the groundbreaking ceremony for the school’s new 35,000-square-foot expansion. The expansion will combine the former Blessed Sacrament church building with the current school building and a new structure, giving the school capacity to add 7th and 8th grade classes, a gymnasium, and a large library, among other features. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
Academia Cesar Chavez’s founder Ramona A. de Rosales holds a golden shovel during the groundbreaking ceremony for the school’s new 35,000-square-foot expansion. The expansion will combine the former Blessed Sacrament church building with the current school building and a new structure, giving the school capacity to add 7th and 8th grade classes, a gymnasium, and a large library, among other features. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Will turn former Blessed Sacrament church into library

Setting in motion plans to nearly double their square footage, Academia Cesar Chavez celebrated the groundbreaking of a 35,000-square-foot expansion on Tuesday, Aug. 25.

The school is undergoing an expansion on its site at the former Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church space on White Bear Avenue at Ames Avenue.

A series of speeches were delivered at the groundbreaking in both Spanish and English, underlining the charter school's dedication to its dual-language approach.

"This is a long-awaited achievement for our community," said Ramona A. de Rosales, the school's founder, over the sounds of nearby construction equipment. "It's exciting to see my dream and vision for the school become a reality."

The expansion will combine the current school building on White Bear Avenue with a new structure that will house a gymnasium, a cafeteria, a music room, and more. It will also tie the two buildings in with the former Blessed Sacrament church building, which was constructed in 1947.

The former church will be renovated into a large media center with high ceilings and cutout nooks for students to study in. The adjacent rectory, which for decades housed the parish priests, was demolished to make way for the new construction.

Doubling the square footage, Academia Cesar Chavez hopes to add more preschool classes as well as seventh and eighth grades — as of now, the school stops at sixth grade.

And the new additions will also allow the school to cease to use the four temporary classrooms that were installed to keep up with enrollment.

Construction on the new structure started in July and will run through next summer, with the intention of wrapping things up before the 2016-2017 school year. The project will be funded with $13.5 million in municipal bonds.

Long-time dream

Though the construction project was announced only earlier this year, it is not a new one — rather, outgoing executive director Rosales said she's dreamed of the school owning its own building, and being a hub for other social services for families, since before she founded the school in 2000.

Just as it comes to fruition, she will step down — she retires Sept. 1, leaving a 45-year legacy of social service work for the Latino community in St. Paul.

In her stead, Bondo Nyembwe will take over as executive director of the school. Nyembwe's been onboard for a few months and training with Rosales.

The new building is perhaps a parting gift to Rosales.

For families, too

Rosales envisions the new structure serving as a hub not just for student activities and services, but also for families. Academia Cesar Chavez celebrates over 30 partnerships with social services organizations such as CLUES, East Side Family Services, and Merrick Community Services to bring families help providing healthcare, nutritious food, and immigration services.

St. Paul Public Libraries does computer literacy training for parents of students and community members out of the school. The Neighborhood Development Alliance comes in and talks to parents about home mortgages and other financial topics.

And Mardi Dominguez, family and community director for the school, meets with parents to help them learn how to navigate the school systems and help their kids prepare for college.

All things considered, Dominguez asserted, "we work very holistically.

"When the child comes here they're fed; they're clothed' they've slept at night; they were warm," she said.

And this approach helps the school keep parents engaged. "The parents plug in and work on parent committees or on the board. They come to school events, and they do fundraising," Dominguez said.

With the new facilities, the school's connectivity with the community can only grow.

Blooming where planted

Rosales noted the school hadn't always intended to take roots on the East Side.

Three times as administrators were looking at changing locations, they sought spots on the West Side of the city to locate.

But nothing worked out there, and so, Rosales concluded, "We believe this is where we were supposed to be."

"We're excited to be a part of the East Side," she said. "Neighbors seem to be very supportive and very excited."

The school runs a dual immersion program that's half in Spanish, half in English for preschoolers, kindergartners, and first- and second-graders.

And overall, the curriculum focuses on Latino culture. But Rosales noted that all are welcome.

"We're open to all children who desire a bilingual- and multicultural-focused school," she said.

Enrollment is currently at 424 students, which means classes are full at every grade level.

The school has even had to run four classrooms in a temporary structure to tide them over until the new building is complete.

The goal will be to have the building open for school in fall 2016.

White Bear Avenue: a grade school destination?

Chuck Repke, director of the District 2 Community Council, touted Academia Cesar Chavez's success and expansion as a draw for young families to come to the neighborhood.

He points to the Latino-oriented charter school, along with L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion School, a public school in the former Ames Elementary building across the street, and two Montessori schools and a Montessori training center also in the immediate vicinity.

He noted that District 2's housing stock, which is comprised of modest ramblers and 1 1/2 story homes, is well suited for young famlies.

"You have options (in terms of education) if you're looking to move into the neighborhood," he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

 

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