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Charter school finds a home downtown

new digs -- Leaders of the Forest Grove Community School await funding decision by school board

On the edge of Forest Grove's downtown financial district, just across the alley from Bank of the West, sits a stately green building that used to be a funeral home.

The two-story structure at 1914 Pacific Avenue is on track to become home to the Forest Grove Community School, a public charter school now enrolling students for fall classes.

Currently vacant, the cavernous building boasts 10,800 square feet of space on two levels for classrooms and hands-on learning labs.

It's on a bus line, near a library and has off-street parking and the outdoor breathing space charter school students would need for ambitious projects like community gardens and large-scale artwork.

In a word, it's just about perfect.

'The location couldn't be better in terms of amenities,' said Vanessa Gray, one of the charter school's founders. 'We're very excited about our school's function as a contributor to the downtown core.'

As recently as last year, funeral services were being held in the building under the auspices of Forest Grove Memorial Chapel. Former owner Rod Fuiten sold the building to Forest Grove native Preston Alexander six months ago.

Alexander, the owner of Triple Point Biologics, a biomedical research company, thought of locating his firm there. But when charter school organizers approached him about the site, he quickly warmed to the idea of being landlord to an educational center.

'I like the idea of community schools and providing an alternative,' said Alexander, 51. 'They're a good way to relieve pressure from the burgeoning school district right now.'

Before a lease can be signed, Gray said, the city needs to issue a conditional use permit and get the Planning Commission's blessing. After that, saws and hammers will begin buzzing and swinging.

'We hope to be working on the facility over the summer to get it up to code,' noted Gray, who is pursuing a master's degree in education at Pacific University.

The charter school collected 163 enrollment forms in March and April during a 'very successful' initial drive, Gray said. By the time the school's doors open in September, she anticipates that 140 to 150 students in grades 1-9 will be signed up.

In future years, the school plans to expand to grades K-12, a move that would be possible in Alexander's building.

For Gray, it's all a lesson in patience and synchronicity.

'We feel really lucky to be working with Preston, who has been so supportive,' she said last week. 'Members of the business community we've talked to have been very positive.

But before the kids sit down to their first day of class, the school must clear a few more political hurdles.

As part of the 6,000-student Forest Grove School District, the free, public charter school is waiting on the school board to approve a three-year charter, which would be reviewed annually.

And, the level of state-provided funding the district is willing to provide the charter school also is up in the air, for at least another week.

Those decisions are expected by mid-May. Meanwhile, school founders Gray, Terry O'Day and Robin Lindsley - along with a host of other parents and advocates - will slog ahead, working on traffic flow around the building, sifting through teachers' job applications and fine-tuning curriculum plans.

'As soon as we hear back from the school board about funding, we're ready,' Gray said.