The first shovel of dirt won't be turned for nearly a year but excitement is building at Chatsworth Hills Academy.
Once construction is complete, just in time for the 2012-2013 school year, the private school will operate out of new buildings on more than four acres it purchased at 21523 Rinaldi St. instead of holding classes in a hodgepodge of individual classrooms strewn across rented land just up the hill.
The $7 million-plus project is the biggest undertaken by the school since it opened in 1977. And yet, Ann Gillinger, head of school, noted that, in some ways, impact on CHA will be limited.
"What we're trying to help everybody understand is that there's really very little change," she said. "We're moving from buildings up here to new buildings down below. These buildings either needed to be rehabbed or replaced or we needed to build new ones."
The new campus will not have significantly more space or classrooms but it will have a gym that can double as a community room and accommodate more than 250 people.
The school, with an enrollment that has been holding steady at about 230 students in preschool through 8th grade, is not counting on the project to boost enrollment. But it would be fine with Gillinger if that happened.
"We'd love to grow, to make that a stronger number," she said. "There's every likelihood that could happen but this wasn't done to achieve that goal." CHA is licensed to serve up to 400 students.
Construction is to be paid for with funds from gifts and donations and by issuing a bond. The exact amounts have not been determined, the head of school said. Meanwhile, CHA expects to derive considerable savings from operating a more modern, compact campus without rental payments.
"We're trying to make this as green a school as we can afford," said Gillinger, who is starting her third year at CHA after serving as longtime head of school at nearby Sierra Canyon School. Plans are to grow grass and other plants on building rooftops, providing a natural barrier to the heat of the Valley sun.
The head of the school stressed that tuition will not be raised to pay for construction. Currently, the school charges from $11,500 to $17,500 a year, depending on grade level and not counting a variety of fees. However, as in the past, families with children at the school, will be encouraged to donate to the school's Annual Fund.
Though nestled on a quiet slope, Chatsworth Hills achieved considerable prominence in 2008, when the Metrolink disaster just downhill turned the campus into a staging area for rescue teams and triage area for responders. Each year since then, the campus holds a remembrance assembly by the park bench and tree planted to honor the first responders.
That area will be part of the new campus but another favorite location will not be included in the school's new boundaries. Rocks near some of the current classrooms are etched with figures drawn centuries ago by Chumash Indians. They serve as a link to the past and a powerful learning tool for classes that study local anthropology.
Eager to explain its plans to its Chatsworth neighbors, the school held an open house on Monday. No neighbor attended, though, perhaps a sign that there are few, if any, community objections to the proposed construction.
For many, the old campus with its temporary-looking classrooms, had a certain rustic charm that many will miss.
"We understand," said a letter of explanation sent to parents and others. "But our legacy isn't the campus. It's our traditions. it's our teachers, it's our families and it's our commitment to excellence in education. And all of that carries on with a new campus that we actually get to design so that it works better with the land."
Nearby Sierra Canyon School is also in an expansion phase with $7.4 million in sports facilities under construction.