A former Jewish temple in West Toledo's Old Orchard neighborhood soon could house an Arabic language-themed charter school, which recently bought the controversy-plagued property and hopes to begin classes there in the fall.
Central Academy of Toledo would be a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school combining two existing charters - Central Academy of Ohio and Bridge Academy of Ohio - that opened in 2007 in separate but adjoining buildings on Secor Road.
Officials want the combined school to be in the former Congregation B'nai Israel building at 2727 Kenwood Blvd. that it purchased in February for $1.2 million from the University of Toledo Foundation.
The deal was unusual in that it had no escape clause or contingencies should Central Academy fail to gain clearance to operate, officials said.
The Toledo Plan Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on a special-use permit for the school to operate a K-8 charter in the former synagogue and classroom space that housed the Hebrew Academy of Toledo from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Central Academy hopes even-tually to expand from about 150 students to more than 250, said Dr. Said Issa, associate director of Global Education Excellence, which runs both Secor Road schools and eight other charter schools in Michigan.
The school has no religious affiliation. Lessons are in English with Arabic taught as a second language.
"We're really eager for a facility that would meet the needs of the students," Dr. Issa said of the public, tuition-free school. "When you're learning, it's not only the curriculum but also the environment in which you have the students in."
Central Academy wasn't the first charter to lay eyes on the Kenwood Boulevard building.
Two years ago, the new Knight Academy, a junior high school affiliated with St. Francis de Sales High School, almost moved in before pulling out for financial reasons. By then the school had requested and received the necessary special-use permit.
Residents nearby were OK generally with Knight Academy. But a proposal last year from a charter school for at-risk youth got a different reception.
The Glass City Academy, which bills itself as a dropout prevention and recovery school for students in grades 11 and 12, attempted to move in by piggy-backing on Knight Academy's permit. That was OK with the city because special-use permits applying to properties can remain good for up to a year when a building is unoccupied.
But some residents objected to that procedural shortcut, arguing that Glass City should go through the same land-use process and public hearings that Knight Academy did.
Neighbors also expressed concerns about the age and type of students who would attend the dropout-prevention school, and what that could mean for Old Orchard's atmosphere and property values.
"The residents heard about this charter, Glass City Academy, and felt that the student body wasn't conducive to the environment of the neighborhood," said Toledo City Councilman Tom Waniewski, who led efforts to stop the school from using Knight Academy's permit.
After losing an appeal to the Toledo Board of Zoning Appeals in June, a group called Old Orchard Citizens Action Association asked Lucas County Common Pleas Court to overturn the decision allowing Glass City to piggy-back on the other charter school's permit.
The court dismissed the lawsuit in January after Glass City abandoned its Kenwood Boulevard plan and relocated to a Monroe Street site near downtown. The school said that the neighbors' opposition prompted the change of plans.
So far, Central Academy's experience with Old Orchard residents has been closer to that of the Knight Academy. School leaders made a point last month to explain their plans to the Westgate Neighbors group and answer questions.
"We've tried to be very open about what we're trying to do," said Al Blackwood, building contractor for the project's renovation work. "When we first came in, they were kind of huffy and on guard … but by the end, they were laughing."
The plan commission also will vote Thursday on revisions to the zoning code that were suggested after the Glass City situation. The change "clarifies" procedures for special-use permits and creates two categories of school types: one for high schools and one for elementary and middle schools.
"We are saying there is a difference in the impact of an elementary and a high school," Thomas Gibbons, a principal planner, said.
Central Academy held a community open house last week, offering tours of the nearly 27,000-square-foot facility. The building dates to 1955 and has been vacant three years.
"We're going to set the bar high for academics, discipline, everything," Dr. Issa assured one guest.
Most neighbors in attendance appeared to be won over.
"I think they're doing the right thing," area resident Ken Pfaff said. "It's a good use of this building; I'd rather see it used than torn down."
Another local resident, Odessa Rowan, said she wasn't thrilled last year with Glass City's plans to bring older at-risk youths into the neighborhood. But Central Academy's plans sound fantastic to her.
"I am definitely in favor of this one," Mrs. Rowan said.
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