Nearly eight years ago, Brighten Academy didn’t even have a school building. The school’s founders started classes in loaned space at First Baptist Church of Douglasville for six months until the makeshift collection of modular buildings off Chapel Hill Road that has served as Brighten’s home ever since was secured.

Now, in 2014, the school is on the cusp of a major expansion that will finally give students and educators more space and resources they have long needed while allowing for about 300 additional students over the next three years.

Groundbreaking is set to take place around the middle of January on conversion of the New Life Christian Church on Prestley Mill Road just across from the First Baptist Church. Brighten bought the former church last year and will convert the main church building into a school. Also as part of the project, a three-level, 45,000 square foot classroom building will be constructed adjacent to the existing structure, with covered breezeways connecting the two buildings.

“This building is about living up to our mission to enrich the whole child and to be good stewards of the community around us,” Brighten Director Lisa McDonald said. “Whereas now we have to divide the school into two or three parts or use outside facilities for meetings, everyone will be able to gather at once. The building will be strategically designed to lock down parts of the building to make common areas accessible to the community.”

Brighten, which is a public charter school, typically has about 500 students on its waiting list to get in, but only around 20-30 are accepted each year through a lottery system because of space and other limitations. Next year, McDonald said five new elementary home rooms will be added, allowing about 114 new students to be accepted through the lottery, thanks to the new campus. The school has 507 students now in grades K-8 and expects around 800 when the expansion is complete in three years.

Open enrollment is coming up in February and a lottery drawing for new students will be held in March.

“This is going to be a great opportunity for new families to get into Brighten,” said Brighten Facility Chair Doug Bailey.

A parent and community informational meeting will be held on Jan. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at Heritage Baptist Church at the corner of Rose Avenue and Selman Drive in Douglasville.

New campus, new opportunities

When Brighten moves into its new facility, it will be moving out of a cramped space it had simply outgrown. Brighten will finally have a full-sized gymnasium for physical education and extracurricular activities, a band/music room, an art room with a pottery kiln, advanced art classes for middle school students and more exposure to art for elementary students.

And McDonald sees the location of the new Brighten campus essentially across the street from West Georgia Technical College and Strayer University as an opportunity to expose students to higher learning.

Getting to within about two weeks of an official groundbreaking on a new campus has been a long time coming for Brighten.

As a public charter school, Brighten gets a share of public dollars based on the number of students it serves and other factors.

But charter schools get less funding per student than schools in traditional public systems, which often use money from education special purpose local option sales tax (ESPLOST) to build new schools. Since Brighten doesn’t have access to ESPLOST funds, the expansion to a new campus is all the more impressive.

Brighten went through a multi-year planning process, touring other charter schools and looking at ways to finance a new facility.

Brighten ultimately decided to pursue the New Life Christian Church property because of its central location near I-20 and all of the assets it had in place including access to major sewer, water, fiber and electric, ample parking and green space for a playing field.

Originally listed at $3.4 million, Brighten wound up buying the former church for $1.875 million last summer.

From there, Brighten entered the financing phase, where the governing board decided bonds would be the most beneficial way to raise the money needed.

Financing a community effort

Brighten wrote and recorded a MuniBond Roadshow audio presentation making the case for funding Brighten that went out to investors. Douglas County Schools Superintendent Dr. Gordon Pritz recorded a clip for the presentation — something Brighten officials say they were told is unusual for a public school superintendent to do.

McDonald got to know Chris Pumphrey, executive director of the Development Authority of Douglas County, during their time in Leadership Douglas together. The Douglasville City Council fast-tracked re-zoning the former church so Brighten could move forward.

“Everybody wants to see the school succeed,” said McDonald.

Brighten secured $10.5 million in bonds at a competitive 6.9 percent interest rate with the DADC helping facilitate the bond issuance. The funding consolidates all of Brighten’s debt from its current facility, and pays for the New Life property and improvements.

Bailey said it is “profound” that Brighten was able to acquire the New Life property and complete the entire renovation for around $115 per square foot or $10,781 a student. The average in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama is around $166.67 per square foot or $23,567 a student, he said.

“Our new facility is a testament to the great heights that true collaborative efforts can achieve,” Bailey said.

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