by: TRIBUNE PHOTO CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Northwest Academy head of school Mary Vinton Folberg is excited about the school's expansion into the YWCA building downtown. A capital campaign for the building renovations kicks off this fall. For the past 16 years, a tiny private school in downtown Portland has used the city as its classroom - literally.

The Northwest Academy, based in a former comedy club at Southwest 11th Avenue and Main Street, begins each day as students check in at the tiny common space.

Then students disperse, as if on a giant scavenger hunt: to the leased classroom space at the First Unitarian Church's Buchan Building across the street; then to leased art studio and science lab space at their 'south campus' nearby; to Portland State University for library research; and to the German American Society building three blocks away for dance studios and yoga space.

Part of the hopscotch across the city is by design, part by necessity.

'We're an urban school; we help young people become savvy about cities,' says head of school Mary Vinton Folberg, noting that the school will soon begin partnerships with the Portland Art Museum and Oregon Historical Society.

At the same time, the school has long wanted a place to put down roots. Teachers want to be able to leave their computers and supplies in a room without having to lock everything up overnight.

'All the time, we're schlepping kids from building to building - it's getting old,' Folberg says.

No room to grow

After a decade of searching for permanent space, school leaders this spring announced the purchase of the YWCA building at Southwest 10th Avenue and Main Street. The school plans to begin renovating the building this winter.

The space will allow for growth, stability and a more prominent profile in the city, school leaders and parents hope.

'I think it's going to build an even tighter feeling of community and allow for even more collaboration across the disciplines,' says Lainie Ettinger, the academy's director of admissions as well as parent of an incoming seventh grader and a ninth grader at the school.

Enrollment for the upcoming school year is 150 in grades 6 to 12. There's been no capacity to expand, but the new building space would allow the enrollment to double.

Still, school leaders want to keep the student-to-teacher ratio low; it's currently 7- to-1.

'While we can't educate the masses, we can do our part in education,' says Folberg, a former Portland Public Schools dance teacher who created the Jefferson High dance program 30 years ago.

While Northwest Academy builds on its base - college-prep curriculum, with special emphasis on the arts or international studies - PPS is struggling to offer the minimum in arts and other enrichment classes and keep class sizes low. PPS is likely to pitch voters on a major construction bond this fall to upgrade old, outdated buildings.

And parents are taking notice.

'The arts are often seen as this distinct, additional nice-if-we-can-get-it thing,' Ettinger says. 'But what we really find - the arts become a vital part of every student's tool kit. They're a means of expressing what they're learning in science and math. School is really about learning to solve complex problems through creativity - that's where the arts and academics intersect.'

Market-driven education

In addition to seismic upgrades, Northwest Academy's building improvements in the 70,000-square-foot space will include five floors of classrooms, art and dance studios, a photography lab and darkroom, computer lab, gym, a band room, study space and an outdoor courtyard.

The YWCA's swimming pool will be covered and converted into a 160-seat theater and dance studio. Bathrooms will be turned into locker rooms.

Hennebery Eddy Architects and Bremick Construction are leading the project. The building is planned for silver LEED certification.

Northwest Academy kicks off a capital campaign this fall to raise about half of the $15 million to $16 million in estimated costs. The rest will be funded by bank loans, federal funds and foundation grants.

The school could occupy the new space in 2013.

Cost of attendance isn't cheap - or free like Lincoln High, just five blocks to the west on the other side of the Interstate 405 overpass.

Annual tuition is $17,000 for middle school and $18,500 for high school. That includes after-school classes, textbooks and fees. About 30 percent of students receive financial aid, and Folberg expects that percentage to increase.

Students enroll from all over the city and surrounding suburbs. About half come from public schools, with many from the district's arts focus-option schools.

'Independent schools are completely market-driven,' Folberg says, using the term for private schools that are allowed to choose their mission statement and determine their curriculum (rather than have them mandated by an outside body, such as the Catholic archdiocese).

'If we're no good, no one comes,' Folberg says. 'We make sure education is delivered efficiently and effectively.'

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