SLO Classical Academy to expand its high school

SLO Classical Academy is hoping to move into these five small homes on Grand Avenue near Slack Street.
SLO Classical Academy is hoping to move into these five small homes on Grand Avenue near Slack Street.

The San Luis Obispo Classical Academy, a private nonprofit school that has grown rapidly since it was founded 10 years ago, is expanding its high school grounds into five small homes on Grand Avenue.

Five members of the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to permit school administrators to remodel five structures primarily used as student rentals until the Cal Poly Corp. bought them in January 2014.

Commissioners Hemalata Dandekar and Michael Draze were absent.

The move will allow the academy’s high school, which currently has about 30 students, to expand and create its own identity, said Susie Theule, executive and visionary director and one of the school’s founders.

“Without these homes our programs will suffer,” she told the planning commission. “They (the high school students) are the ones who will benefit from and care deeply for the campus we will create for them with these homes.”

The SLO Classical Academy opened in fall 2005 with 27 students. It has 324 students this year, Theule said, and shares its space with public school Teach Elementary at 165 Grand Ave.

The school integrates classical history, literature and language with hands-on math and science. Students in elementary, middle and high school attend class a few days a week and continue their education at home by following school-provided lesson plans.

Theule said the school’s current location offers decent-size classrooms but that there isn’t enough space to offer teachers their own rooms. In one room, for example, classes include math and science for fifth through eighth grades, as well as high school chemistry, Earth science, Spanish and art.

“It’s like a constant sliding tile puzzle,” math and science teacher Paige Bartel said. “There’s this constant packing up and putting away.”

The school formed a committee in 2013 to research ways to accommodate its small but growing high school, said Tim Ronda, a member of the school’s board and architect for the project.

He said the academy is already leasing the properties at 110, 120, 130 and 140 Grand Ave., located on three separate parcels, from the Cal Poly Corp. The lease started last July and ends in four years, with an option for two additional two-year extensions. 

The Classical Academy hopes to start using the homes as high school classrooms when the next school year starts Aug. 31.

San Luis Obispo Associate Planner Marcus Carloni said the homes, which were vacant before Cal Poly Corp. bought them, were the subject of 36 code enforcement cases over the past 15 years and 54 cases in 25 years. 

Violations included noise, illegally converted garages and substandard living conditions.

About 50 people, including many students and parents, attended Wednesday’s meeting to urge planning commissioners to approve a use permit for the project. 

“Their (high school) spaces are shared with elementary and middle school spaces and they have no place to sit together and eat lunch,” high school history and literature teacher Sarah Shotwell said. “Our students are doing so well and thriving so much because we’re giving them a strong sense of community, and they don’t have space for that right now.”

City planning staff had recommended denial, however, based on a strict interpretation of part of a policy in the city’s general plan.

The general plan allows some nonresidential uses, including schools, in residential areas; however the land use element states that if existing dwellings are removed for a neighborhood-serving use, the development should include replacement dwellings.

Carloni noted, however, that the buildings could be converted back to residential use once the school moved and prepared an alternative option for planning commissioners to approve the project with some conditions.

One added condition basically stipulates that the use permit would end in 2022 unless extended by an amendment. 

That condition was in response to concerns from neighborhood groups that allowing a school would set a precedent for future uses, such as a convenience store.

“We think the Classical Academy will be far less noisy … act far more courteously and be a far better neighbor than the previous tenants, but some are concerned that it would set a precedent and allow for other uses,” Sandra Rowley of Residents for Quality Neighborhoods said.

The commission also required the academy to develop a pedestrian safety plan to address concerns that students might cross Grand Avenue at Hays Street to get to their classrooms instead of using the crosswalk at Slack Street.

“What I’m concerned about is really the travel across Grand, which hasn’t seen a lot of traffic mitigation,” Commissioner William Riggs said. He said the speed limit along Grand Avenue is 35 mph (25 mph when children are present), but some people drive much faster.