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HQ Booked By Educator

One of the largest vacant buildings in Lancaster will be the new headquarters for a charter school operator that wants to expand through work-training programs for high schoolers. Learn4Life will move into the two-story building at 177 Holston Drive early next year, relocating from three separate offices on 10th Street West that the nonprofit consortium now uses. But the new location, a former mortgage lending call center, will be more than just offices. It will also function as a school with ample space available for work-related educational programs, which eventually could include computer repair and agriculture. Steve Gocke, executive vice president of operations at Learn4Life, said an existing kitchen at the building will be repurposed and set up as a culinary program for high school-age students. “There will be kids coming in there for culinary certificates and on-the-job training,” Gocke said. That is just the start for the expansion of services that the nonprofit has in mind. In the works are opening centers outside of California, working with employers through internships and developing workplace training programs that prepare students for jobs in relevant industries. Learn4Life, founded in 2001 in Lancaster, coordinates and provides administrative support for a network of 16 charter schools that runs from Southern California to Sacramento. The nonprofit also has a program in Columbus, Ohio. Each school is independently operated under the Learn4Life brand name with its own board and budget. Learn4Life is a consortium controlled by the individual schools. The consortium serves students from public grade and high schools who have fallen behind in their studies due to economic issues at home, pregnancies or other factors. The purpose of the school’s program is to get the students back on track to avoid dropping out. Certified teachers set up individualized lesson plans and students stay with Learn4Life on average for about a year before returning to their regular school, Gocke said. “We work with them on specific courses to get them caught up,” he added. In the Antelope Valley, about 2,000 students are served at three schools – Desert Sands Charter High School, Assurance Learning Academy and AV Learning Academy. There are about 547,000 students attending more than 1,100 charter school in the state, according to the California Charter Schools Association. An additional 158,000 students were on waiting lists for the 2014-15 school year, the most recent period available to the association. School economics Charters are public schools that receive tax monies just like any traditional school district. However, students and parents must request to attend a charter, so they face a recruiting issue. Charters try to offer an advantage over regular schools in terms of curriculum, facilities and learning methods. Stuart Ellis, chief executive of Charter School Capital, a Portland, Ore., firm that provides financial and facilities support to charters and will be Learn4Life’s new landlord in Lancaster, said the difference with charters is their flexibility in curriculum, management approach and geographic reach for students. Charters can be like Learn4Life and focus on dropout prevention; others have an emphasis on special education services, foreign-language immersion, the arts, athletics or science and math. “It creates school choice for those who cannot afford a private school or are not being served well by a traditional school district,” said Ellis, who grew up in the West San Fernando Valley before attending college at UC Berkeley. He pointed out that his high school, El Camino Real in Woodland Hills, is now a charter. Because charters have to pay for the facilities they use, that must be factored into their budget. Learn4Life receives between $8,000 and $10,000 a year for each student, the same as other schools, but unlike regular schools, it has lease expenses. While California allows for unused school buildings to be converted into charters for a subsidized rental rate, that is not a good long-term solution because the host school district can always take the building back if it needs it, Ellis noted. “It is hard to support an established population if the parents and student have to keep changing locations,” he said. Learn4Life worked with Lancaster for about a year to find space to consolidate its corporate headquarters. There were other options, including a site near Antelope Valley Hospital and in the same area as its Desert Sands school. “Our founders (Dante Simi and Jeff Brown) felt it made sense not to build something from scratch. This was available and it made more sense,” Gocke said. Simi and Brown remain involved with daily operations. The two-story, 101,136-square-foot office building in the Lancaster Business Park was purchased by Charter School Capital in July for $5.6 million from L.A.’s Rising Realty Partners, according to real estate data provider CoStar Group Inc. Rising purchased the property, plus a similar building next door at 176 Holston, in 2013 from Bank of America Corp. as part of a 1.75 million-square-foot, $200 million portfolio of 10 office buildings. The Charlotte, N.C., banking giant inherited the portfolio when it bought out defunct mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Services of Calabasas in 2008. Rising has the 176 Holston building, also 100,000 square feet, on the market. “It is a good use and seeing that parking lot full is something that will make everybody happy,” said Vern Lawson, economic development director in Lancaster. The building was constructed in 2003 and included the kitchen, cafeteria and fitness center. There is parking for 700 vehicles. Learn4Life has a minimum 15-year lease on the building, with an option for another 15. Lease rate information was not available. Charter School Capital has been supporting charter education in California since 2007. The company has invested a total of $1 billion in 500 schools nationwide, Ellis said, adding that a year ago it started a fund for facilities investment. The building will be modified and renovated for Learn4Life’s 120 employees. There will be a solar panels installed on the building that will help reduce utility costs and could also be used as an instructional tool, he said. “They can do projects related to solar cells and construction of the panels,” he said. Renovations will also take place in the kitchen area to make it appropriate for the planned culinary program. Initially, food prepared there by students will serve the Learn4Life staff but Gocke said the program could be expanded to include the employees of other businesses in the business park. “We will take it in steps,” he said. Growing campus Learn4Life’s expansion outside of California is dependent on states having laws that allow charter programs. Ohio is one, for instance, where Learn4Life has operated for a few years through the Boys and Girls Club in Columbus. This summer the consortium partnered with two other nonprofits on an early childhood education program. Educators from both California and out of state have visited Lancaster to learn more about the programs the nonprofit offers. California’s state superintendent of public instruction, Tom Torlakson, visited in August, and the organization has hosted the mayor of Houston and the Texas state education superintendent as the Lone Star State mulls having Learn4Life open centers there. “People in the know are looking for alternatives because kids don’t live in the society we used to have where they went to school everday,” Gocke said. Another opportunity for growth is expansion of career training programs for high school students. Learn4Life can offer programs itself or refer students to partner organizations. Learn4Life has courses in the essentials of information technology with server manufacturer Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose. After proving their skills through testing, students are able to get hired at consumer electronics stores in maintenance and repair, Gocke said. “We are ramping up a lot more of the computer-type programs with coding and cybersecurity,” he continued. “We are getting into some app production.” One reason the Holston Drive building makes sense as Learn4Life’s corporate headquarters is that it is a few buildings away from where its Prints4Life program operates. It is the nonprofit’s first attempt at workplace training and has grown as a promotional product distributor that does graphics, printing, silk screening and video production. Clients have included the city of Lancaster, Kid’s Charities of the Antelope Valley and numerous Little League teams. A new program in development is for a hydroponics lab that would be the centerpiece of a larger agricultural program. It would teach about food production in limited space, both in water and soil. “It is urban farming, I guess you would call it,” Gocke said. The agriculture program will begin this year, with the culinary program starting next year. Both will be open to all Antelope Valley students. The culinary program will run twice a week and initially be limited to an enrollment of 25, Gocke said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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