Abandoned hospital repurposed to accommodate education
By Dave Fidlin
For years, it sat empty and dormant in Grant Hill, situated atop a hill and overlooking the Downtown skyline.
But after a vision, an extensive fundraising campaign, and a heaping dose of creativity, a former convalescent hospital was transformed last fall into a middle school campus for Albert Einstein Academy, a growing San Diego charter school.
At the beginning of the current school year, the wraps were taken off the 38,000-square-foot, four-story building, located at 458 26th St.
An estimated 475 students began walking through the school’s doors in September, but at full capacity, the middle school will accommodate 600 students in grades 6, 7 and 8.
David Sciarretta, executive director of the academy, said the former hospital building has been ideal in helping to carry out Albert Einstein’s international baccalaureate curriculum, which is aimed at linking personal, emotional and social skills with an emphasis on global learning.
Some of the features of the new middle school facility include a so-called “genius bar” that is dotted with computer stations and designed to foster collaboration among students. The facility also hosts a “maker’s space” that features cutting-edge technological tools.
“We were interested in having a facility that was open, airy and inspiring,” Sciarretta said.
Flexibility was also at the heart of the building’s redesign.
In keeping with the hands-on baccalaureate curriculum, Sciarretta said the middle school is flush with such features as “accordion” walls, allowing learning spaces to shrink or expand.
“We want to be able to shift ‘on the fly’ and use classroom space in a different way,” he said. “We have multipurpose space that could serve as a place for students to eat one minute and be a place for yoga teaching at another time in the day.”
Prior to relocating to the independent facility, Albert Einstein’s middle schoolers were housed at the still-in-existence elementary school building at 3035 Ash St. in South Park.
“Before the move, the [middle school classrooms] were acting as silos,” Sciarretta said. “We’ve taken them out of the vacuum and created a more collaborative learning environment between the different grade levels.”
Sciarretta said the new learning space at Albert Einstein’s new middle school facility was inspired by some of the designs in New York City. To date, he said the design is not commonplace within San Diego.
The completion of this fall’s middle school facility was the realization of a four-year effort by Albert Einstein’s leaders. Sciarretta said the exploratory process kicked off in 2010. A number of properties were considered, but the former convalescent hospital won out for a variety of reasons — including its close proximity to the elementary building.
As planning on the building gained momentum in 2012, Albert Einstein’s board of directors agreed to bring Bankers Hill-based Studio E Architects into the fold, to plan the innovative features within the building.
While the shell of the building has remained the same, the interior — which was described as being “in a dilapidated state” after sitting unused for at least a decade — was completely gutted from within.
“The building had good bones; it was still very strong,” said Maxine Ward, one of the Studio E architects who was involved in planning the renovation project.
In addition to the repurposed use of the building, Ward said a number of energy-efficient improvements have been added to the revamp, including new insulation and windows. She said Studio E has submitted the project to the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design — or LEED — certification.
The actual renovation of the building took place within a nine month period. Sciarretta and Ward cite the brevity of the project toward a number of factors, including a streamlined approach by City of San Diego officials.
“We had to work with a number of city groups and go through what was referred to as an entitlement process because this was a site that was originally zoned as a hospital,” Ward said.
While Albert Einstein’s leaders and school staff are celebrating this milestone, Sciarretta said he does not see the new campus as the last for the charter school, which opened in 2002 with solely elementary school classrooms. Middle school classes were added in 2006.
No firm plans have been announced, but Sciarretta said he envisions Albert Einstein also having a teen-centric campus in the not-too-distant future.
“I definitely see high school as being on the horizon,” he said. “We’re looking at the fall of 2017, or perhaps even earlier. We have a task force that is currently looking into this.”
One of the largest sticking points for planning a high school is where it would actually be located, in what is a largely landlocked section of the city.
“We really value the urban learning setting, and we would want [the high school] to have some sort of close proximity to the other two schools,” Sciarretta said.
For more information on San Diego’s Albert Einstein Academies, visit aeacs.org.
—Dave Fidlin has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years. Throughout his career, he has contributed to a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites across the nation. He has a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org