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Old Grant Hill hospital transforming into charter school

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A rendering shows what the new Albert Einstein Academy Charter Middle School will look like when completed this fall. Image courtesy Studio E Architects

An architectural firm and a public charter school are breathing new life into a frumpy old building on the edge of downtown San Diego.

Once a convalescent hospital, the four-story structure on 26th Street between J and Island avenues in Grant Hill will open this fall as an Albert Einstein Academy Charter Middle School. The $14 million project has Studio E Architects at the helm, a firm that has not only designed several local High Tech High schools but also reimagined old structures, such as the Schiefer & Sons warehouse building near the ballpark.

John Sheehan, Studio E Architects’ principal in charge, was quick to point one of the key features of the location that sits on a hill.

“Oh, my gosh, the views are unbelievable,” he said, describing the sweeping vistas of the Coronado Bridge, downtown and north to Mid City. Those views had even prompted a proposal many years ago to tear down the hospital and put up condos.

Fortunately, that didn’t come to pass. Instead, Studio E Architects is transforming the existing 40,000-square-foot building, bringing in as much daylight as possible into the interior, enlarging areas and creating space between rooms. Sheehan said the top floor will house a media center, while the north side of the building will feature a big lunch deck with restaurant-quality views. The LEED-certified school will have about 20 classrooms and accommodate 450 kids.

While the views are picturesque, other factors were far more important to the charter school team -- proximity to public transportation, freeway access, a vibrant and dynamic downtown, and Grant Hill Park, which is right across the street. The new school is just 1.2 miles from the Albert Einstein Academies (AEA) South Park location.

AEA has run its elementary and middle schools at its Ash Street address for 10 years. “But for some time now, we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of families on a waiting list for most of our grades,” said David Sciarretta, AEA executive director.

Three years ago, AEA’s board put together a strategic plan to move the middle school to its own campus, and a charter school team traveled around Southern California to look at different financial models of schools and different architectural designs.

AEA worked with commercial real estate broker Hughes Marino to find the Grant Hill site. Funding for the new middle school comes from private investment in tax-free municipal bonds.

The new school will not only expand AEA’s reach, but it will also benefit the surrounding area, according to District 8 Councilman David Alvarez. “In blighted communities -- communities where you’ve got a lot of empty buildings or empty land -- it’s good to see activity, especially a school. You’ll see families, and this is a very family-oriented community.”

While converting an old hospital into a school isn’t easy, “making the nontypical work is really cool for kids,” said Barb Robinson, principal of the middle school. “We looked at the layout and made it have a very dynamic set of structures and supports so each grade level will have its own floor. It’s all about creativity and all about flexibility.”

Creativity is part of the AEA educational philosophy. AEA has an international baccalaureate program, focusing on a well-rounded education that incorporates as much creativity, critical problem-solving and community service as possible. The elementary school also offers German immersion, although many kids are trilingual, speaking Spanish, as well.

AEA currently has about 850 students. In the fall, the enrollment for both schools will swell to 1,100 students, and within three years, it will have 1,400 students.

Maxine Ward is Studio E Architects’ project manager for the site. BYCOR General Contractors is the company in charge of construction.

-Nicholls is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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