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Danville: The Athenian School breaks ground on $24.5M construction project

New classrooms, commons set to open next summer; revamped main hall following in 2018

The Athenian School community joined together last week to commemorate the beginning of construction work designed to transform and enhance the private Danville campus for decades to come.

The $24.55 million renovation project involves adding 10 new classrooms in the new "Knoll Classroom Buildings," creating a redesigned commons building for student services and socializing, and building a brand-new larger main hall with an "innovation space" at the heart of the school that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

"It just feels like this change of our campus is representative of us maturing as a 51-year-old school and looking to the future," said Allison Rowe, Athenian's director of advancement. "It's really a special time here."

A 75-acre campus at the base of Mount Diablo in eastern Danville, The Athenian School is an accredited college preparatory private boarding and day school for just over 500 students in sixth through 12th grades.

The school has seen consistent growth, with the student population now 20% larger than it was 20 years ago, according to school officials. That growth, they said, contributed to administration developing a new campus master plan, outlining how the school would accommodate the larger student body and support the school's blend of intellectual and experiential education.

Following more than four years of planning, the groundbreaking ceremony last Friday marked the start of Phase 1 of that master plan. The $24.55 million project is being funded through long-term debt financing and a philanthropic campaign.

"We are confident that our building project will enrich every student's experience, serve the Athenians of tomorrow and better align our learning spaces with our mission," Rowe said.

"By the fall of 2018, the campus will be transformed with new buildings that facilitate the fluid integration of technology and instruction while encouraging the use of our natural space," she added.

The first set of Phase 1 construction will take place for the Knoll Classroom Buildings and the new commons, both of which school officials anticipate will be finished in the spring. The main hall modernization is scheduled to follow during the 2017-18 school year, with completion during summer 2018.

The Knoll Classroom Buildings, being added on an unused knoll space behind the current main hall, will feature three modular structures with classrooms and meeting areas for the humanities and the sciences.

Several classrooms will have collapsible walls and adjacent break-out study rooms, and all classrooms will have movable furniture and modern technological capabilities, school officials said. Rowe said they hope the classrooms "will provide flexible learning spaces to foster collaboration and hands-on, experiential learning opportunities."

The new classrooms will house lessons that have been held at faculty housing on campus, in rooms built originally as garages but began being used as classrooms pretty soon after Athenian opened in 1965, Rowe said.

Though that current group of classrooms contributes to the school's residential-community feel, the new classrooms will be modernized, far less cramped and reduce student travel between classes, she added.

The modular Knoll Classroom Buildings will be constructed off-site in the coming months before being delivered to Athenian for assembly in the spring, Rowe said.

Also being built this school year, the new commons building is designed to become a vibrant activity hub for students that also serves as a one-stop-shop for student services such as counseling, registration, mail retrieval and learning specialists.

"As the new home to many administrative offices that were once tucked away, the commons will support interactions between students, faculty and administrators, deepening these core relationships that are a hallmark of an Athenian education," Rowe said.

The new commons will be constructed where the current commons has stood -- its demolition scheduled to start next week.

Since the commons is used by students mainly as a hangout spot, school officials are still working to find new indoor options for students to gather when it rains during lunch, Rowe said. Several faculty offices have been moved to temporary housing because of the commons construction.

The main hall renovation will take the longest, with crews set to work on the project between summer 2017 and summer 2018.

It involves replacing the existing main hall, first built in 1964, with a new main hall nearly twice as large and also featuring a new innovation space designed to enhance interdisciplinary learning and student creativity.

The new main hall will feature a main kitchen, three meeting rooms with movable walls and a variety of student gathering spots off what officials are calling the hall's "Main Street."

The 4,500-square-foot innovation space will feature three classrooms, plus a large shop area with metal and woodworking tools and an industrial arts area. It can be configured for different projects, including accommodating the airplane Athenian students build from scratch every four years.

"Moving the Innovation Space to the center of campus makes a strong statement about the value Athenian places on hands-on learning and creativity," Rowe said.

Athenian administrators are still finalizing plans for student dining and other affected services for 2017-18 during main hall construction, Rowe said. The new building will sit where the current main hall stands, plus extend back into some of an existing faculty-staff parking lot.

School officials said one of their priorities is to minimize the disruption for students caused by the construction.

"The master plan is exciting and can make students nervous because it feels personal when something you love is taken away or changed," Athenian student speaker Courtney Curd said during the groundbreaking ceremony last week.

"But I want to ensure my peers that, I know, while the idea of change may be scary for a lot of people who hold strong ties to this campus, this is not only a necessary change but one that represents the innovation and progressiveness of Athenian," Curd said, later adding:

"These new buildings will be the change that unlocks new potential for our community, past, present and future. I could not be more excited to be a part of it."

The groundbreaking event drew hundreds of attendees, including students, faculty, trustees, parents, alumni, former board members and heads of school, and the daughter of Athenian founder Dyke Brown.

Head of school Eric Niles and board chair Dave Welsh also spoke during the ceremony, and the school received certificates of recognition from Danville Town Councilman Newell Arnerich and representatives from the offices of State Assemblywoman Catharine Baker and Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen.

Work began first thing this week, with crews installing security fencing Monday and putting up signage for new pathways, Rowe said. Workers will be demolishing the commons next week, and throughout the winter, Turner Construction will grade the knoll and pour foundations for the new classrooms and commons.

Athenian officials hope the new commons and classrooms will be available for partial use by summer programs in 2017 and be fully operational in time for the start of the 2017-18 school year.

As part of the school's commitment to environmental sustainability, the project will use renewable materials, repurpose existing materials, optimize energy, and incorporate water-efficient landscaping and overall water-use reduction performances, Rowe said. The construction will also meet the new CalGreen building codes, which are based on LEED standards.

The campus is located at 2100 Mt. Diablo Scenic Blvd., about four miles east of downtown Danville.

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