MCCORDSVILLE — She opened the door, glanced at the make-shift partition dividing the space — making it part classroom, part hallway — and sighed.
It’s the perfect example of how her school has outgrown the small facility near the intersection of Olio Road and 96th Street in Hamilton County, Susan Fries said. They need an uncluttered place more conducive to learning, she said, where the spirits of her students won’t be stifled by mess.
Geist Montessori Academy, which opened in 2000, currently leases two buildings near the Hancock-Hamilton county line: the north campus Fries oversees and the south campus in the 6600 block of County Road 900 North in McCordsville.
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Leaders of the public charter school recently announced plans to consolidate its operations in a new 40,000-square-foot school on Hancock County’s north side. The new facility — an estimated $8 million investment — would combine the school’s two existing campuses, bringing its kindergarten to eighth-grade students together for the first time in more than a decade.
Talks of building a new, consolidated campus started about four years ago but began taking shape last year when the academy’s school board identified a 12-acre plot of land for sale at the corner of county roads 600 West and 900 North as the perfect spot for a new facility, said Fries, the academy’s executive director.
Sale of the land, currently owned by Berkshire Homes, is pending.
The academy, which focuses on self-directed learning and hands-on lessons, plans to close on the purchase next month and begin construction later this year using a $2 million state loan. Private loans will likely cover the cost of the rest of the project, which Fries anticipates will be completed in the next 18 to 24 months.
Geist Montessori Academy first opened as a private Montessori school in 2000 with just seven pupils; it became a pubic charter school in 2006 thanks to a sponsorship from Ball State University.
In the 10 years since the school opened its doors as a public charter school, Geist Montessori Academy has grown from roughly 50 students in first through sixth grade to 370 students in kindergarten through eighth grade across its two facilities.
Those two structures are starting to become cramped and lack amenities most elementary and middle schools offer, Fries said.
For example, the academy’s north campus, located just inside Hamilton County, shares acreage with a self-storage facility, and it has no space for a computer lab, art or music classrooms, a gymnasium or library. The students make do, but the academy’s leaders hope their new school building will give their students more room for the activities that typically accompany an elementary and middle school education.
Parking and traffic flow are also big issues at the academy’s two locations, Fries said. Neither building has a parking lot large enough to accommodate the rush of cars that comes before and after school hours, creating traffic jams on County Road 900N and on 96st Street, she said.
And because the student body is divided (kindergarten and fourth- through eighth-grade students are housed at the north campus while pre-kindergarten and first- through third-grade students are housed at the south campus) many parents have to sit in traffic twice while trying to drop off their kids in the morning, Fries said.
All these issues would be alleviated with a new facility, built on property truly large enough to house a school, Fries said.
Though Geist Montessori Academy is eager to grow, its new campus won’t likely hold more than 400 students because one-on-one, student-centered education is important in a Montessori education, Fries said.
Though a formal site plan has not been rendered, the school has agreed to allot space on the property that will connect the school to the walking trails that run through McCordsville, according to documents released by town officials.
The academy’s leaders also promised to put their school in the southern corner of the property and leave the northern property undeveloped, records show, so that students can utilize the space for outdoor nature lessons that typically accompany a Montessori education.
McCordsville Town Manager Tonya Galbraith said local leaders are excited to have the school settled on land in McCordsville rather than a neighboring community. The site will be a unique fixture in the town’s landscape, she said.
The school needed special permission from the town to move forward with its plans because the property it hopes to purchase was originally zoned for residential development. The town’s zoning board voted to allow the school to take over the site after hearing pitches from school leaders and nearby neighbors who supported the proposal.
The formal site plan will still need to be approved by the town before building can begin, Galbraith said. But she anticipates continued support for the project.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “That property wasn’t very develop-able for other things. And it’s an amenity we don’t have.”