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Published: Friday, 7/11/2008

Knight Academy charter school scheduled to open in West Toledo

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

After a false start, the proposed Knight Academy charter school to be affiliated with St. Francis de Sales High School is back on track to open in September, school officials said yesterday.

Backers of the all-boys junior high charter school struck a tentative $1.1 million agreement in May with the University of Toledo Foundation to buy the former Congregation B'nai Israel building in West Toledo and renovate it for a modern school setting.

Yesterday, the academy passed another crucial step when the Toledo Plan Commission voted 4-0 to approve the special-use permit it needs to operate in the nearly 27,000-square-foot synagogue building at 2727 Kenwood Blvd., which was built in 1955.

Commissioner David Gstalder, a St. Francis alumnus who sits on the high school's facilities committee, abstained from the vote.

While Knight Academy would maintain affiliations with St. Francis and share some of the Catholic school's facilities and faculty resources, it would be a publicly-funded, tuition-free charter school without any religious mission, said the Rev. John Extejt, who is treasurer for both St. Francis and Knight Academy.

The academy, which initially would open to sixth and seventh graders before expanding to grade eight, also has its own board of directors. It is sponsored by the Columbus-based Buckeye Community Hope Foundation.

"We see education as a value for the human spirit," Father Extejt said. "Certainly education is one of the things we need to live good and productive lives."

Charter schools with affiliations to parochial schools like St. Francis are uncommon in Ohio. Two Catholic high schools in Toledo have their own junior highs - St. John's Jesuit Academy for boys and Notre Dame Junior Academy for girls - although both academies are private.

This is the second time that Knight Academy's backers have struck tentative deals for the Kenwood Boulevard property.

In February, they terminated a purchase agreement that was "just above" the $1.75 million price that the UT Foundation in 2004 paid for the synagogue property.

The prospective buyer, SFS Knight Holdings, is a land purchasing entity for St. Francis de Sales High School.

The charter school plans to open in a temporary location as the synagogue undergoes an estimated $1.5 million in renovations, scheduled to be finish by January, said Mark Tooman, Knight Academy spokesman.

The deal for its interim location is still under negotiation, Mr. Tooman said; he expects it to be made final before the end of the month.

Long-term plans call for Knight Academy to reach a maximum enrollment of 375 students by the 2011-2012 school year.

Both the UT Foundation and Knight Academy's backers agree that the earlier synagogue property deal unraveled after St. Francis received higher-than-expected estimates for the building's rehabilitation.

The foundation then put the property back on the market, and by spring was in negotiations again with Knight Academy and a local church, said Matt Schroeder, director of business enterprises for the UT Foundation.

The university had no present use for the synagogue, so after the church and the academy made "comparable" offers, the foundation chose to sell to the academy.

"We went with a buyer that had a high likelihood of being able to actually close the deal," Mr. Schroeder said.

Father Extejt said that the academy's focus would be to groom under-prepared students for the rigors of a college preparatory high school.

The school uniform would be dress pants and collared shirts with ties, and the school day would be extended to 5 p.m.

"This age group [of] boys are underserved in the Toledo community," Father Extejt said. "We find that to be true for many of our incoming freshmen in their inability to meet academic requirements. We fully expect to have students come to [Knight Academy] who may not be reading, writing, or able to do their arithmetic on their grade level."

Academy supporters also said that while the charter school's graduates would be welcome to attend St. Francis for high school, they would have no obligation to do so.

"Students who attend the charter school will have freedom to chose any high school," Mr. Tooman said.

The academy's principal will be Susan Wolf, a past principal of Wildwood Environmental Academy in Springfield Township. Its president is Tom Baker, a former superintendent of the Lucas County Educational Service Center, a leading sponsor of charter schools throughout Ohio.

Mr. Baker resigned from the service center in 2005 following a controversy that he approved millions of dollars in charter school contracts without gaining the approval of the center's governing board.

Father Extejt said he has no qualms about bringing in Mr. Baker, adding that he has worked with St. Francis officials to develop the Knight Academy concept over the last 2 1/2 years.

"If you know Tom, you know that he is just a very committed good person who is highly skilled and experienced in education," he said.

Mr. Baker could not be reached for comment.

Congregation B'nai Israel sold the synagogue to the UT Foundation four years ago and thenleased it from the foundation until early 2007, when it moved to 6525 Sylvania Ave., Sylvania Township.

From 1964 to 1985, the Hebrew Academy of Toledo operated a private kindergarten through sixth-grade school in the Kenwood Boulevard building's classrooms.

Mr. Tooman said that Knight Academy's renovation plans involve concealing religious symbols and writings that presently cover the building's exterior. The most prominent inscription above the entrance beckons visitors to "Seek Ye The Lord And Ye Shall Live."

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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