From the outside, it looks like an office building, but nothing special. It’s not until you get inside that you discover what makes this place special. And it’s not the modern architecture or the nice furniture or even the panoramic view of the Delaware Valley from its expansive windows. It’s the kids’ artwork on the walls and the sound of their voices reciting their ABCs—in English and in Spanish—that makes you realize that you’ve stepped into a different world. The Community Education Building at 12th and French streets in Wilmington is up and running after two years of planning and preparation. The building, once a center of banking, has been converted into the grandest school building in the state and currently houses two charter schools, with another one ready to open in the fall and a fourth to be added in the future. “Our goal was not just to create a building and house kids in it, but to create an exceptional educational experience,’’ says Thère du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation, which facilitated the change from bank to school after Bank of America donated the building in February 2012.
The two schools in residence in the 11-story, 450,000-square-foot building are Kuumba Academy and Academia Antonia Alonso. A third, Great Oaks Charter School, will open in September. Eventually, around 2,400 students will be educated there. The Community Education Building (CEB) is actually in its third transformation. It was built by MBNA in 1997 as part of a four-building complex and called Bracebridge IV. It changed hands in 2006 when MBNA sold its holdings to Bank of America, which also operated it as an office building for several years. When Bank of America put the building up for sale and couldn’t find a buyer, the company decided to donate it to a deserving cause and, with the guidance of the Longwood Foundation, it was eventually changed from an office complex into a school. The Longwood Foundation spent $30 million to repurpose the rechristened Community Education Building, and then went in search of worthy tenants. Each school is housed on its own floor, and each decides its own curriculum and method of teaching, but all of them share the cafeteria, library and an expanded health center. “The idea is to allow each school to have its own identity while taking advantage of the facilities that everyone can use equally,’’ says Aretha Miller, the new CEO of the CEB. “It takes some creativity to make it all work, but this is a unique situation and a unique building, and we want to maximize its potential as much as possible.’’
Miller had extensive experience in New York City’s charter school system before she moved to Wilmington several months ago, but she never experienced a school building like the CEB. “You could tell right away that this was a place where children could be nurtured and given a real chance to reach their full potential,’’ she says. “And that made me eager to be part of this.’’ Doran Moreland is state programs and government relations director of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based organization that lobbies for school choice. Moreland visits schools all over the country and was impressed by what he saw on a recent trip to Wilmington and the CEB. “One of the things people need more than anything is to feel respected, and that building makes you feel like you’re getting that respect,’’ Moreland says. “It sends the message that every family is worth it. There’s just a terrific feeling around that place. Part of it is the building itself, and part of it is how they’ve transformed it. It’s really quite remarkable.’’