Groundbreaking at Academy of Warren!

Even if the event doesn’t look exciting (that’s me on the left digging furiously next to Camille Martin, Oronde Kearney, and Sara Fields), the project really is exciting: Transforming the Academy of Warren, a K-8 charter school in a former strip retail property on a largely empty stretch of East Eight Mile Road, into a place where students are excited to arrive and, at the end of the day, reluctant to leave.

And we’re doing this with no fund raising, no foundations, no new government funds, and no diversion of funds from the school’s limited operating budget.

The trick? At Equity Schools we call this “Nonlinear Project Funding.” For more info on our process (including a short video), see our About page.

A Challenge, To Be Sure

AOW is serving some of the lowest-income families in Detroit, all African-American. The kids are absolutely great, and the educators are committed to making a difference, but … the school is in an old supermarket building, surrounded by acres of asphalt.

Windowless classrooms, no natural light, and really none of the learning environments you would hope for (eg, no library, no science labs, no gym, no art … you get the idea). Unfortunately, these students have nothing to compare it with and they think it’s normal. And their families have no real choices for other schools.

This was the challenge for us.

How do we transform this school to include stimulating and varied learning environments, and enriching opportunities for children to socialize, play and have fun? How do we provide natural light, improved air quality, enhanced nutrition, physical activities, co-curricular programs, green space?

As the school’s leader told us – he wanted anyone coming to the school to think and feel:

  • Safe
  • Welcome
  • Comfortable
  • Family-Oriented
  • Warm
  • Excitement
  • Wow
  • Wonder

He wanted it to be the kind of school where children are eager to arrive and reluctant to leave.

Success! Before & After

After a couple years of hard work and obstacles – we’re happy to say that this $9.7 million project is fully funded and currently under construction! We broke ground on August 14, 2020, and are planning for construction to be complete by September 2021.

Take a look below for some approximate before / after images of some of our favorite parts of the project – currently with artistic renderings by Bondy Studio until we have real photos when construction is complete.

Current Kindergarten hallway (left), new interactive corridor – the “Learning Street” (right):

Current “multipurpose” room (left), new “Adventure Space” with bouldering, student lounge, black box theater (right):

We’re also converting five acres of the 12-acre site from asphalt to green space (athletic field, student gardens, landscaping, and a playground designed by the students):

To see more renderings of the special new learning environments that are underway, view the Academy of Warren entry in our Portfolio. Or, see below for a 2 minute video highlighting some of the exciting updates coming to AOW:

Of course, we wouldn’t be able to get all this work done without our friends at Sachse Construction. Their team has worked closely with us on so many elements of this project – and we feel confident that this transformation is in good hands with Sachse leading the construction efforts.


Personally, I’ll be more excited by the ribbon-cutting than the groundbreaking.

We’ll have the Academy done by Sep 2021, please consider yourself invited!

Saving a Landmark – Two Tips for Solving Problems That Feel Impossible

Most things that are worth doing are hard, and some of them feel impossible. At Equity Schools we’ve taken on projects that are so mired in financial obstacles, the stakeholders can’t help but feel defeated. But there’s a solution to every problem, and we’ve learned a couple strategies to help keep that in perspective. But first, some context:


I was minding my own business when a friend invited me to meet her at a historic landmark. She recently had gotten involved in saving it from the wrecking ball.

I thought, “Gosh, this is a gorgeous piece of architecture; she should be proud to have helped save it, and I would love to see its interior.”

It all seemed so innocent – a happy opportunity.

That was a few months ago. Now it seems I’m deeply caught up in efforts to restore and redevelop that landmark. To be more accurate, it seems I’m leading the efforts.

The Harley Clarke Mansion

Oh my. I wasn’t looking for this. But it really is an astonishingly beautiful and historic building, perched on the shores of Lake Michigan. I genuinely want people to be able to experience and celebrate it.

Located just north of the Northwestern University campus, you certainly don’t need to be an architect or historian to appreciate this gem. Here’s an excellent video (6 min):

The Evanston Conservancy

I’ve named our plan “The Evanston Conservancy” because it will be a fiscally self-sustaining, dynamic new center for conservation, education, advocacy, and community. The historic structure will house next-generation ideas with a focus on sustainability, a theme organically inspired by its striking physical setting; tucked into sand dunes and adjacent to “Lighthouse Beach,” surrounded by Jens Jensen designed gardens in one of the most beautiful locations on Chicago’s North Shore.

Among some other compatible uses, we programmed it for:

  • gallery / exhibit / event space
  • co-working
  • mid-size conference facilities
  • environmental non-profit offices
  • a light fare café
  • a diverse-by-design, nature-based preschool
  • performing arts

Pretty cool – altogether a center for education and advocacy on the global issues of conservation, environmental sustainability, and climate change. Most importantly, though, it’s feasible – a realistic project without relying primarily on government subsidy or fund raising.

Two Takeaways

This project is an excellent example to highlight two key strategies we use when we’re faced with a funding challenge that feels impossible. Regardless of each project’s circumstances, our experience is that these steps can help you stay grounded and find solutions that aren’t immediately obvious.

  • Stay calm. Seriously. When initially confronted with the problem, it’s important not to panic. In this case, almost everyone who had looked at the property was saying the cost could be as high as $10 million, the potential uses had to have “public access,” the local government (which owns the property) was not going to provide financial subsidies, and the philanthropic potential was limited. There was a lot of anxiety. It’s helpful to keep in mind that your initial anxiety clouds your thinking, and that it will fade over time.
  • Identify and unpack the assumptions. Is the cost really $10 million? Why can’t uses be welcoming – even inspiring – and still pay market rate rents? Even if the government isn’t going to provide cash subsidies, it’s offering a long-term lease; but on what terms? Will the property be subject to property taxes? Even if philanthropists might not offer donations, could friendly investors receive other tax benefits based on the historic qualities? In fact, adding all these numbers together, could this project attract investors who would welcome a fair return on their money while restoring a beautiful landmark and creating a unique community asset? Be honest with yourself about how much you’re assuming, and make a point to question those assumptions.

Remember: Stay calm, then identify and unpack the assumptions.

Does it Work?

This process helped us discover that, for Harley Clarke, this can all work. We researched and planned and estimated and modeled and projected and analyzed. It turns out to be a potentially good deal.

So, we submitted a proposal for “The Evanston Conservancy” (in response to the city’s RFP), competing with three other proposals. We feel very good about our approach and about our chances. But in truth, as long as someone restores this property and opens it up for the community, we’re good with that. A happy ending.

And, I’ll admit it. I do want to win this one

I want you to solve your own “impossible” challenge too, if you’ve got one that feels that way. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to talk about it! Sometimes a conversation gives you the momentum you need to get started.

Chicago City & Country School

Good news! The “Chicago Prize” has advanced our project to compete for the Finalists stage (the Pritzker Traubert Foundation will award the $10 MM Chicago Prize to improve civic infrastructure on Chicago’s West or South Side).

Equity Schools is teaming with Lawrence Hall to develop a new type of school in Chicago’s Englewood Community to provide great education, workforce training, community amenities, greenway development, innovative funding, and more.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lawrence Hall, it is an organization of amazing people who – since 1865 – have provided high quality social care for Chicago youth and families (it began with Civil War orphans). They provide education, foster care, counseling, therapy, workforce development, and related services, mostly for the City’s underserved communities. Lawrence Hall is a statewide leader in evidence-based and innovative therapeutic treatment.

What are we doing together? Our working title is the “Chicago City & Country School,” although the name does not fully capture all that it represents.

The CCCS Model

CCCS will be a new kind of school – yet based on a nationally-proven Equity Schools model – to be developed on a seven-acre campus in Englewood. It will enroll 353 students (grades 8-12), and:

  • provide high-quality education in Chicago for youth in Englewood (and possibly other low-income neighborhoods), while building confidence and raising aspirations – because all students will work at professional internships
  • enhance Englewood with green space and other amenities
  • establish an urban farm to grow fresh produce and provide students with a connection to nature and their food
  • offer local adult workforce training
  • create jobs and economic opportunity
  • be free of politics, and
  • support its graduates with college funding – in order to become Chicago’s future leaders.
An aerial view of the CCCS campus. The line running through the center of campus (diagonally) is the planned “Englewood Line Trail.” On the south side of the trail are academic spaces, workforce training, and food service, while the north side of campus contains an urban farm with greenhouses and hoop houses.

This last piece will be a national first – the “Extraordinary Promise.” Any CCCS graduate who earns a college degree – and brings their degree, talent, and energy back to Chicago – can receive up to $30,000 for their college debt. No other school in the U.S. offers this.

Can we do this? Can it work?

Yes, of course.

Our original school model already has succeeded in dozens of underserved communities (95%+ college acceptance rate). This new version will enhance and build on that model, extending its impact for students into and beyond college, while incorporating immediate and lasting community engagement.  

So, yes.

Here’s an 89-second video overview from our Chicago Prize application:

Meet Our Self-Funding Community Center

Beautiful, playful community center looking for a loving home!

  • Good for children!

    Community Center exterior

    Front of Community Center.

  • Good for seniors!
  • Favorite activities: Café (with fair trade goods), music, fitness, co-working, dining facility, after school activities, summer camps, maker space, climbing/bouldering, rooftop play space, and a giant slide
  • Community raised
  • Nearly ready for development
  • Can live on only 4,000 SF site
  • Financing: Feasible
  • Ready for its “forever home”*

*In all seriousness; last year we planned and designed a cool, self-sustaining community center, and we came up with something that would provide lots of complimentary uses yet would not rely on fundraising to operate. Our client loved the concept, but unfortunately decided to wait – so it got put on the shelf.

Re-homing a Community Center

At some point, we looked back at what we created and realized – this was a beautiful community center that could work in almost any urban environment! We developed the design, costs, operations, and financing; this is completely feasible for any community that has a little space and wants a self-funding community center (of course, adjusted to suit that community and site).

workshop maker space

Maker Space / Workshop.

Naturally that makes us wonder if some nice community might be looking for just this kind of place. A place for socializing, learning, and playing. Somewhere to work, dine, meet new people, and just have fun.

With any luck we’ll find a good place for it one day, but for now we just like to reflect on these beautiful renderings and wonder about the possibilities.

If you ever want to hear more about this model we put together (or if you think you might have a “forever home” in mind for this beauty), give us a call! We’d love to talk about it.

In case you’re curious where our artistic renderings come from, our good friend and a great artist, Bruce Bondy, drew them – he is one of the few rendering artists who still draws by hand; imagine that. We think his work really captures the spirit of the place, the people, and the activities. Visit him at Bondy Studio to see more of his work. Thank you, Bruce!

Hauling 720 Million Pounds

Why would a nationally-honored “Green Ribbon Award” school require hauling 720 million pounds of steel uphill every year? This bothered me.

We were working with this charter school to develop an amazing new campus on some hilly acreage next to a lake – a perfect setting for their environmental theme. Our Nonlinear solution for this new campus was one of our best, but that’s a story for another day.

While we worked on solving the bigger issues (eg, how to pay for everything while keeping it carbon neutral), I looked at the campus access. What troubled me was all the wasted energy for moving those 720 million pounds uphill every year …

A Surprising Environmental Cost

This school would be no different than most in how its 500 students came to the campus and later went home – in cars. Every day, twice a day, a car would come to the campus for each student, and the school year lasted about 180 days. Since the average car in the U.S. weighs two tons (4,079 pounds, to be precise), a little math added that up to 720 million pounds of steel and glass annually climbing that hill by the lake. I suppose we could have calculated the gasoline consumption, but the point was to consider the waste and try to reduce it.

Of course, we came up with obvious ideas such as ride-sharing, bicycle use, electric cars, home schooling (not really an option, but admittedly no wasted transportation), and my favorite – walking.

The fun idea, though, involved the hill and the lake, in a mildly practical but very educational solution.

An Unusual (and Educational) Solution

Our system was a similar concept to the "Run of River" hydroelectric scheme (as pictured here), but using lakewater and a system of pumps to lift it up, instead of diverting an already flowing water source.

Our system was a similar concept to the “Run of River” hydroelectric scheme (as pictured here), but using lake water and a system of pumps to lift it up, instead of diverting an already flowing water source.

After each car had climbed the hill, which was about 20 feet above the lake level, it would roll onto a simple platform connected to a hydraulic cylinder. Simply using gravity, the two-ton car would be gently lowered about two feet, which in turn would generate enough power to draw water up from the lake via a system of pumps. That water would be detained in a series of ever-higher reservoirs. Then, during the course of the school day, a small stream of water (inside a pipe) would flow back into the lake, turning a micro-hydroelectric generator. Why not? The cars were going to climb that hill anyway.

During all of this, the water would never be contaminated or heated (making its return to the lake completely neutral) – the water would serve only as a moving weight; a transference of potential energy into a poised/stored position before gravity returned it to the lake while generating electricity.

The amount of generated electricity would be quite small, actually, but the educational value would be significant.

Sadly, due to local politics, that school ultimately decided to close and return their charter before we could develop the campus or the cool micro-hydroelectric system. Damn.

But I still like the idea of our little system using gravity and water to steal energy from those 720 million pounds of steel and glass.