(Update from 5/5/21)
On November 7th, 2020, One Spark Academy moved out of the Thousand Oaks Teen Center, our home for almost nine incredible years, and put all of our OSA belongings in a Newbury Park storage unit. It was a sad day, but one that we knew was likely inevitable.
When OSA started in July 2011, the wonderful folks at the Teen Center agreed to allow us to rent space during its “non-operational hours” (up until 2:00 PM weekdays during the school year). We started with seven students and grew to 35 students by the end of the year. At that time, none of us knew what to expect in two years, let alone ten.
The Thousand Oaks Teen Center is about the best possible place a little train like OSA can chug along and build steam. No experimental program like ours could dream of having a huge gym, game room, a kitchen, outdoor spaces, a gorgeous park and City library within walking distance, and four well-lit classrooms to use in the early part of the day. And, the staff at the Teen Center was (and still is) like family to us. It was a symbiotic relationship and we hope that OSA students will continue to enjoy their facility in the future, especially given the incredible renovations about to be underway. Let’s be honest. The Teen Center is awesome! We were very, very lucky.
However (big sigh), OSA’s use of the building was limited, and that reality can never change. The Teen Center is a city building, created by the City of Thousand Oaks for the exclusive use of teens in the Conejo Valley and beyond, and run by the Conejo Recreation and Park District. It can never be rented or occupied by us or anyone else more than it was. That means: no permanent classroom set up (we set up and broke down tables and chairs every day for nine years), no use in the afternoons for “after school” classes taught by us, no parenting classes (which we’ve long wanted to do), and no regular use by us during the times the building was open to the public (like… late afternoons, summers or weekends). We at OSA have long known that we needed a space of our own: a place to unpack, leave projects set up, have an office, display our own address… if we were ever going to take a chance on growing, or even providing our staff the opportunity for full time positions, or serving students in the afternoons and summers. But how does a program like ours leave a place like the Teen Center, and downscale to the reality of what can be realistically afforded? If ten years is any indication, it’s hard. The kids loved it, we loved it, and the Teen Center loved us! A lot of incredible memories were made there.
But then a pandemic came along. We had no control over our use of space, even if we followed all protocols. Had we put all of our eggs in one basket and waited, we’d not have temporarily moved our indoor learning to Art Trek, and our kids wouldn’t have had indoor Mapping, or Archaeology, or in-person academic support this year. That is why in November we decided that, in order to allow the Teen Center and OSA to figure out our collective next moves, we needed to pack up and put our stuff in safe-keeping until we could settle again. After vacating the Teen Center (our last day was March 13, 2020), we discovered other ways to meet our students’ needs. We built the Garden Classroom at the Las Flores Community Garden, set up Fitness Club and Hiking Club at the local park and trails, and then secured two lovely classrooms at Art Trek. It’s hard to believe what an incredible year 2020-2021 has been despite the pandemic, and not one memory was made at the Teen Center.
The other path, and the more difficult one (emotionally and financially) is to find a home of our own, a place to finally unpack, where we can put things on the walls, leave puzzles and games in process, meet up on weekends, and have access during summers, if we’d like. Looking at options in the Conejo Valley has been a time-consuming quest for the past five months. There are differences in light industrial, retail storefronts, offices, and a mix of space. We have learned a lot about how much rent, utilities, and the challenges of having one’s own location can vary. We also learned what the City will and will not allow us to use, being that we work with kiddos and such. There’s a lot to consider: size of the space, access to a kitchen and restrooms, parking, drop off, pick up, convenience for driving, safety, accessibility to other places we can use, and whether we can have any green space. But, mostly, we must consider what we can afford after enduring a very difficult year, financially. Thankfully, we got a lot of help this year, but no matter how we slice it, we’re about to embark on a huge set of growing pains. It will be a lot more expensive to rent space that is smaller than we had at the Teen Center, as well as pay for it for the full year. Oh, and then furnish it.
But ultimately, that may be the best route for the long term sustainability and freedom of OSA. After a year of students learning in FIVE different locations (online, Art Trek, the OSA Garden, the park, and the trails), we know we can not only think outside the box, but we can handle any size of space with flexible creativity. OSA is much more than one single location. And this is the first time in ten years that only a handful of returning students have an emotional connection to the Teen Center. Most of the kids coming next year can see a new space with fresh eyes, perhaps more so than their teachers.
What can parents expect for next year? We currently have a proposal in for an office/storefront in Thousand Oaks, which (if they accept our proposal for some modifications) will have four smallish classrooms, a smallish kitchen, and a smallish eating area. But at 2,300 sq. feet, it will be enough space for our unique classes, Circle, studying, learning, and being together. It is more square footage than we used at Art Trek, it is super convenient for arrival and drop off, has plenty of parking, and is accessible to tree-lined sidewalks for “walking and talking” during breaks. There is no gym, no game room, and no huge space to run around. But, the potential is there to grow and expand when other nearby spaces become available (as they could), once we increase our ability to pay for more square footage. Is this where we will end up? Who knows. But if this space falls through, as several have, we will keep looking. And perhaps, we will again rent space at the Teen Center, if it’s available, and enjoy our old home for some or most of our activities, just as we are using several locations to provide learning options that are diverse and accessible.
Hang in there with us. If you’ve learned anything about One Spark Academy this past year, it’s that we are flexible, responsive, creative, and always on the hunt for awesome ideas to help our students learn.
Lori Peters (5/5/21)