“We’re a classical school, and we have a building with neoclassical columns out front. Does it get better than that? Does it get better? No,” Matt Hopkins exclaimed Tuesday as he surveyed the former bank building that will soon become home base for the Augustine Classical Academy.
For the past three years, the independent Christian school has held classes at Mechanicville United Methodist Church, two doors down from the newly acquired building on South Main Street, but as enrollees have increased, space has gotten tight.
Students in lower grades will still attend classes at the church, while the upper grades will move to the new location.
Originally based in Clifton Park, the academy offers instruction from elementary school through high school.
During its first year of operation, the student body consisted of just nine students. This September — the beginning of the academy’s sixth year — about 80 boys and girls are expected to attend.
Acquisition of the building — formerly a Bank of America branch — became official Monday. It was a convoluted process, said Hopkins, who is headmaster at the academy. He described it as a “very strange, three-way closing” which involved Bank of America, a man Hopkins didn’t identify and the academy.
“It was sold at auction, and we were the beneficiaries of how it went down,” he explained, opting not to reveal how much the academy paid for the old bank.
Mechanicville Mayor Dennis Baker said he was surprised by the turn of events. Until just a few days ago, he was under the impression that a business was going to occupy the building.
The conversion of the structure from a bank to a school will remove it from the tax rolls, which is not an ideal situation, Baker said.
“I’m happy for [the academy], that they have a place to go,” he added.
Although the school won’t be a source of tax revenue, Hopkins said the academy is of value to the community in other ways. He said the establishment offers an alternate choice for education, brings racial and intellectual diversity to the city and, with the acquisition of the bank building, will preserve a bit of Mechanicville’s history.
Built in the 1920s, the former bank is a stately stone structure with marble accents and unique plaster work. The two-story building still looks a lot like it did when the Bank of America branch closed its doors about two months ago, but Hopkins envisions nine classrooms and a beautiful theater there.
Initial renovations will allow students to use part of the building starting in September. A large-scale redesign, which Hopkins said will preserve as many historic details as possible, is planned for next summer.
Baker said it will take a lot of work to transform the bank into a school.
“For their sake, I hope they’re looking at the whole picture before they get too far into it and make sure the building will work out for them,” he said.
Touring the newly acquired space, Hopkins could not contain his excitement.
He eyed the long, rectangular “safe deposit” sign above the entryway to the room where the vault is housed.
“I think it’s beautiful. It needs to go somewhere — the student lockers, the student book racks,” he said, pondering alternate meanings for the words “safe deposit.”
He pushed on the vault door, and the massive slab of metal swung slowly on its hinges.
“Isn’t that amazing? Feel how heavy this door is,” he urged.
“Of course we’re making jokes about detention,” teased Ann Baker, head of the academy’s grammar school, who also visited the building Tuesday.
The vault won’t be used as a place to punish students, though, she assured. Likely, it will be storage space.
Producing a flashlight from his bag, Hopkins shined it around the vault’s interior, the light glinting off of hundreds of safe deposit boxes.
“Can’t you see these decorating a restaurant? We have keys to all of them,” he said.
He peered into one of the largest boxes.
“These could be book cubbies, except for the [sharp] steel. I think people would get hurt,” he mused.
“This is our visionary leader,” Ann Baker quipped.
Hopkins’ vision extends well beyond the building’s aesthetics. He spoke of future Shakespeare productions to be held in the soon-to-be-built theater and other opportunities the newly acquired building will present for students.
He explained the concept of a classical education, which is based on the idea that children develop through three distinct cognitive phases. First is the grammar stage, when students memorize facts and particulars in all different subjects. That’s followed by the dialectic stage, when students learn to reason and analyze how the things they’ve learned affect one another. The final stage is rhetoric, when the emphasis turns to mastering oral and written expression.
Every student is instructed in drama and studio art, and each plays a musical instrument. There is also an emphasis on math and science.
Hopkins described the school as “unapologetically Christian,” noting students are of many denominations and some are non-believers.
“Our first and foremost conviction is that all education is discipleship, and that’s pretty edgy. Those are fighting words, I know,” he explained. “Implied in that is that everybody is preaching. If I teach you anything, a world view is going to go with it. There is no such thing as neutrality. Because of that, we don’t believe that two-plus-two just equals four. We believe that there is understanding behind it, there are implications to it that are going to shape the student.”