, Salem, MA

March 21, 2014

Charter school plans new building

Expansion would provide a gym and auditorium

By Alan Burke
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM — The Salem Academy Charter School, following its 10-year anniversary, is about to launch an expansion.

“We have been planning it over a year,” says executive director Sean O’Neil. “And it’s in the design phase.”

While many charter schools have won support through academic prowess, the weak link has always been the state of their facilities. School officials often have needed to transform existing buildings, sometimes warehouses or office spaces, into schools. Salem Academy, which serves 372 students in grades six to 12, operates out of Shetland Park, but without some of what traditional public schools take for granted, including a gym and an auditorium.

The proposed expansion would provide precisely those spaces, along with some additional classrooms. The entire yet-to-be constructed, $2.5 million, 15,000-square-foot building would be devoted to athletics and the arts.

“We’ve been 10 years without a gymnasium,” O’Neil said. “Luckily, we’ve had a good relationship with the Boys and Girls Clubs.” Students have gone there to play basketball and have gym classes. “But that’s two blocks away, and the kids have to walk, which takes away from class time. ... We don’t have anything near the ‘Taj Mahal’ facilities the district schools have.”

On the other hand, Salem Academy does have high expectations academically, he said.

The new building opens up possibilities for new programs like volleyball and amenities like locker rooms. Additionally, comes a space for artwork and music. The gym, as proposed, can be transformed for assemblies or to mount theatrical performances on a stage that can be opened when needed.

The building is being designed at no charge by one of the school’s longtime supporters, Mark Meche of Winter Street Architects in Salem. While it won’t be contiguous with the current school, the building will be within easy walking distance down Pingree Street.

For Meche, whose two children attend Salem Academy, this is a labor of love. His work has been confined so far to outlining the concept, establishing where the various classrooms and the gym will be located.

“There is not much more that makes me prouder,” he says of his association with the school, which goes back to its founding.

The building itself will cost money, but school officials are counting on savings because they won’t own it. Rather, Salem Academy hopes to pay $250,000 per year for its use, while Shetland Park management finances the construction.

O’Neil praised Shetland owner Robert Lappin, “He is part of our success, and he wants to help us thrive.”

O’Neil hopes the school will break ground on the project at this time next year. He’s currently working on raising the money — including up to $400,000, a one-time cost, for installing a gym floor, scoreboards and bleachers, among other expenses. He doesn’t expect to see sizable contributions coming from individual donors. Students at Salem Academy reflect the same demographic that exists in Salem’s traditional public schools, he pointed out. In other words, the children do not generally come from wealthy families.

“We have good relationships with a number of foundations,” O’Neil said. “We’ll go to them first. ... I’m confident.”

Salem Academy Charter School is an independent public school authorized by the state Department of Education.

Alan Burke can be reached at