Urban Academy students are news kids on the block in East Village
Downtown San Diego will soon be rejuvenated by the daily presence of an unlikely new group of East Villagers: schoolchildren and their teachers.
The Sept. 2 grand opening of the Urban Discovery Academy (UDA) campus, San Diego’s first downtown K-8 charter school, will infuse a new dynamism into the East Village neighborhood. Located within the I.D.E.A. (Innovation Design Education Arts) District, UDA will offer students a vibrant project-based learning experience in a richly diverse environment. And it will bring San Diego into the global ranks of major cities that boast a distinctive primary school inside the urban core.
The idea for UDA emerged in 2008 at the intersection of two vanguard concepts. Locally, smart-growth regional planners wanted more families to live and work in downtown San Diego. Nationally, progressive education leaders wanted to broaden the conventional STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) model by adding an A (for arts) and launching a well-rounded STEAM paradigm.
An urban school with a STEAM focus appealed to a group of local parents and educators who filed a charter petition with the San Diego Unified School District. Following approval of that petition, we established UDA in temporary quarters and launched a marathon quest to build a new school from the ground up. In retrospect, our dream was impossible. We set out in an economic recession with no financing, no prior experience with capital projects, and no certain political support.
But UDA’s founding group had two key advantages. We were propelled forward by a “very big idea” (historically, a signature San Diego commodity). And we were championed by downtown civic and business leaders, particularly Sherman D. Harmer Jr. of Urban Housing Partners, who realized that a quality K-8 school is a powerful magnet for attracting young professionals to an up-and-coming neighborhood.
We also benefited from serendipitous timing. The planning and construction of the UDA school at 14th and F Streets has coincided with the emergence of both the I.D.E.A. District as a design and technology jobs cluster and the Makers Quarter hub for entrepreneurs and artists. All three ventures share an underlying principle that condominiums, offices and restaurants are not enough to revitalize a downtown area. Education and the arts will be indispensable to East Village’s future success.
Financing was probably our biggest hurdle. We cleared it by securing a bond to help fund construction and by lining up benefactors who see primary education as a wise investment. Our biggest donation of $125,000 has come from Carleton Management, because its president, Jeff Silberman, believes in supporting future generations of San Diego leaders. UDA’s sustained track record of academic achievement (earning an 861 score on the state’s Academic Performance Index), teaching excellence and school leadership has made a powerful case for support.
Our closest neighbors have been among our biggest cheerleaders. UDA’s community supporters have been joined by such civic leaders as Mayor Kevin Faulconer, Councilman Todd Gloria and San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, whose headquarters building is in the next block. And it took a village – East Village – to raise up this school. UDA would not have been possible without the strong backing of community leaders like Kris Michell of the San Diego Downtown Partnership, David Hazen of the East Village Association, and Joan Wojcik of the East Village Residents Association.
UDA’s most important stakeholders – our 415 students and 24 teachers – will officially move in when classes start Sept. 8. They have watched closely over the past year as an old brick building morphed into their gleaming new school. They are eager to take possession of the brightly colored classrooms, the performing arts venue and the visual arts studio. They are excited about ringing the iconic 100-year-old tower bell, and they are ready to go on field trips to the cultural institutions of nearby Balboa Park.
East Village’s newest denizens will excel and flourish in their new downtown quarters, and their surrounding neighborhood will be uplifted by their presence.
Abeyta, Ph.D., is president of the Urban Discovery Academy Foundation. Levine is president of the Urban Discovery Academy’s Board of Trustees.