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WEST WHITELAND — When the Collegium Charter School opened its doors in 1999, there was worry it wouldn’t have enough students to open it and keep it going.
“We started with 39 students on our first day,” said Beth Jones, the director of Administrative Services and one of the founders of Collegium. “Our first graduating class didn’t happen until 2006 and that’s because when we started, we were a K to six school and we just added a grade level on each year. By 2006, our first graduating class had eight kids.”
Now, 16 years later, Collegium is looking at another expansion — this one adding 80,000 square feet by renting buildings 468 and 486 Thomas Jones Way in the Oaklands Corporate Center in Exton.
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“We currently have about 2,400 students,” Jones said. “Next year, we’ll have over 2,600 students. This year, we’ll graduate probably about 45 or 50 and then it’s really going to start to ramp up from there.”
The kindergarten through 12 charter school currently resides in four buildings clustered together in the Oaklands Corporate Center, but the elementary students are scattered in two different buildings.
For the Collegium administrators and its board of trustees, when the time came that they had to expand, it was a battle between if they were going to expand within the buildings they already have or expand to a new location.
“It was a build versus rent kind of option,” said Viktor Ohnjec, president of the trustees. “That decision didn’t happen until about a month ago.”
They decided to go the way of renting, which is where buildings 468 and 486 come in.
Located next to each other with a small courtyard in between, the plan is to gradually move all the elementary students into the two buildings so they can remain there for six years.
“Our admin team met and we just basically threw a bunch of ideas up of how we could do this,” Jones said. “The one that we landed on was creating two separate elementary buildings with the idea being the two buildings could be a smaller community and the students could stay there from kindergarten through fifth grade.
“(The students) will have six years all in one building to develop nice relationships with teachers there, including all the specials’ teachers, the guidance counselors, the principals and even the custodians and food service folks. Right now, they have at least two buildings in their elementary career. That was a real strong driver for us.”
The buildings are currently getting ready for the next school year while the offices are converted into classrooms.
As of Aug. 1, the buildings will be handed over to Collegium before the school year begins Aug. 17, but not everyone will be in there right away.
“It is a staggered move,” Jones said. “We won’t be fully occupying the 80,000 square feet all in one year. We’ll have half of our kindergarten at 468 next year. The following year will be K and one and after that will be K through five. It will be over a number of years. The third year out, will be half there and the other half in the other building.”
The new buildings, being half a mile away from the others in the corporate center, will also help to ease the onslaught of traffic daily.
With all that space, Collegium isn’t concerned over filling the two buildings.
“The physical size of that elementary school allows us to split them half and still have good socialization within each of those different buildings,” Ohnjec said. “We have enough to really populate both of those complexes.”
The charter school has become so popular that it now draws students from over 20 districts, from as close as West Chester, Downingtown and Coatesville to as far as Lancaster, Daniel Boone, Twin Valley and Philadelphia.
“We’re just constantly growing,” Jones said. “We have a lot of families in the Chester County area and beyond. (The families) have a strong interest in having their children enrolled here. The easy way was to say, ‘Nope, we’re only having two classes in each grade and that’s it,’ and stay a very small school, but we responded to the demand and continued to grow while making sure our education product and quality was still up to high standards and we’re still preparing students for college, which is our goal.”