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New downtown school in works


Downtown workers will have another close-by school option for their children beginning next year, as plans to establish a second elementary school in the central business district move forward.

The Des Moines Independent Community School District, which bought the Federal Home Loan Bank building at 907 Walnut St. two years ago, has already converted office space on two floors to accommodate 165 children in early-childhood, preschool and kindergarten programs. Next fall, it plans to add another kindergarten class and a first grade as a first step toward establishing a new downtown K-5 school, which has been named The Pomerantz Learning Center – Walnut Street School.

“It’s quickly developing into a full-blown school,” said Duane Van Hemert, executive director of facilities for the school district, who said the 109,000-square-foot building will accommodate up to 600 children after its major tenant, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, moves out next summer.

District officials say the six-floor building, which meets the stringent city fire and building code requirements to serve as a school, would also have sufficient space to serve as a new home for its administrative offices currently located at 1801 16th St. However, the issue has not yet been presented to the school board for its approval.

“We have from the very beginning indicated that could be one of the future uses,” said School Superintendent Eric Witherspoon. “There is a lot of square footage there. We always thought maybe the two highest floors might be better suited for offices. Before we make a decision on that, I would like to see the school expanded and make sure we meet the needs of the school first.”

The school is named for Marvin Pomerantz, chairman of Mid-America Group Ltd. and a longtime education advocate.

“Marvin Pomerantz not only made personal contributions, but also helped us contact leaders in the corporate community,” Witherspoon said. “When people heard from Marvin about what we could do with education, the corporate community really stepped up.”

The new downtown school is a response to the growing waiting list for The Downtown School, an innovative program established in 1993 as a collaboration between the business community and the school district. Located at 500 Grand Ave., The school began with just 45 students, but has expanded four times to reach its current enrollment of 270.

“Each time (we expand), we seem to just add to that waiting list,” said its principal, Jan Drees. The Downtown School now has more than 800 potential students on that list.

The demand is driven by more than just the convenience of parents dropping their kids off downtown on the way to work. The 12-year-old school, which offers small, multi-age classes that feature project-based learning, has been ranked among the top 10 in the country and has been featured by national publications such as Working Mother magazine.

Though it operates with the same resources as other district schools, The Downtown School doesn’t hire art, physical education or music teachers. Instead, it has its classroom teachers handle those subjects and uses the money it saves to offer its specialized programs in a smaller class setting.

“We try to give great customer service, and with the business involvement we started thinking about that differently,” Drees said. “I attribute a lot of the success to the different kind of thinking that businesses gave us.”

Though it’s still largely a well-kept secret, the Pomerantz Learning Center already has a waiting list for its infant to 2-year-old early-learning program, said its director, Laurel Prior-Sweet. That program, along with the four preschool classes, are each led by teachers who hold early-childhood endorsements, she said.

“Our goal is that by providing quality early-learning experiences that children will achieve in K-12,” she said. “We believe wholeheartedly that with it, kids will have a better experience.”

The K-5 program will be similar to that of The Downtown School, she said, but will be held on a traditional school calendar rather than as a year-round program.

The building’s former owner and major tenant, the Federal Home Bank of Des Moines, plans to move its offices to the new Wells Fargo Financial headquarters next door when that project is completed in August 2006. The other remaining tenant, National By-Products Inc., a Des Moines-based livestock rendering company that operates plants throughout the Midwest, has a 10-year lease for the fourth floor and said it plans to stay in the building for the duration of its lease.

The school district, which purchased the building from the bank for $4.55 million, has received more than $2 million in contributions from major employers that have been seeking an additional school option for their workers’ children.

Allied Insurance contributed $1 million to provide skywalk access to the building, which makes classes possible for younger students, who are required by building regulations to have exterior access on the floor on which they have classes.

Other major contributors to the new downtown school include Principal Financial Group Inc., which donated $525,000; MidAmerica Group, $200,000; Wellmark, $100,000; the John Ruan Foundation Trust, $100,000; Wells Fargo & Co., $100,000; Taylor Construction Group, $50,000; Pioneer Hi Bred International Inc., $50,000; Central Iowa Health System, $40,000; MidAmerican Energy Co., $25,000; Marvin Pomerantz, $25,000; Qwest Communications International Inc., $25,000; Jester Insurance Services Inc., $15,000; and Harry Bookey, $10,000.

Those contributions, combined with tenant income, will allow the school district to have the building completely paid for by the end of 2006, Van Hemert said.

“It took a couple of years to get it that way, but it’s going to work,” he said. “We couldn’t have done it without community support. All of those businesses know the value of having another downtown school.”

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