Elgin Math & Science Academy's art barn; photo courtesy of Elgin Math & Science Academy

Illinois Charter School Completes Renovation of Historically Significant Campus Designed for Expeditionary Learning August 17, 2023

In a Nutshell

What: Through a long-term relationship with IFF, Elgin Math & Science Academy has evolved from a start-up to a high-performing, K-8 public charter school while transforming its campus to support expeditionary learning through a multi-phased renovation that was substantially completed this summer.    
Sector: Schools 
Location: Elgin, IL 
Size: 78,000 square feet spread across seven buildings on a 19-acre campus 
Cost: $13.2 million (in hard costs for three phases of renovations completed as part of a campus master plan) 
IFF Support: Three loans totaling $8.62 million (closed between August 2018 and February 2021); Predevelopment support (September 2019 to October 2020); $1.4 million credit enhancement (March 2023) 
IFF Staff Lead: Andrea Poole, School Consultant 
Financial Advisor: Longhouse Capital Advisors 
Investment Banker: RBC Capital Markets 
Design: Wheeler Kearns Architects 
General Contractor: Bulley & Andrews 
Asbestos Remediation: TEM Environmental, Inc.  
Impact: 104 new K-8 student seats created; 10 FTE jobs created 

Spread across 19 bucolic acres adjacent to a wetland nature preserve and featuring historic buildings designed by noted Prairie School architect John Van Bergen, Elgin Math and Science Academy’s (EMSA) campus could easily pass as the home of a private college or corporate retreat center. Instead, it’s the venue for high-quality public education for K-8 students who benefit from an expeditionary learning model that emphasizes critical thinking and real-world problem-solving that takes place both in classrooms and on EMSA’s campus, where undisturbed nature offers a multitude of learning opportunities.  

As students return to campus this week for the new school year, there will be additional opportunities for more students to benefit from EMSA’s unique approach to education. That’s because the public charter school is currently putting the finishing touches on a $6 million renovation of a previously vacant, 10,500-square-foot building constructed in 1928 that will provide it with three additional classrooms, a fully equipped science lab, and new space for programming and administration. 

The project is the third major upgrade on the campus since EMSA began operating there in a single, 20,000-square-foot building in 2018, largely completing a $13.2 million, multi-phased revitalization of the property after it sat vacant following nearly nine decades as the home of a private country day school. With the completion of its campus master plan, EMSA will be able to enroll up to 500 students – an increase of 104 student seats that will create 10 new, full-time jobs at the school. More than half of EMSA’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced meals based on family income, reflecting the diverse makeup of its 90-square-mile service area in Chicago’s far northwest suburbs. 

“We’ve been creative with our space as the school has expanded, but this project really gives us everything that we need to continue to provide high-quality instruction,” says Jacquelyn Willer, EMSA’s principal. “We held some classes last year in the multi-purpose space, and while our teachers and students did great, you can’t put a price on having classrooms with walls. I’m personally most excited about the new science lab, which has all of the bells and whistles to teach biology and chemistry. We’ve done a lot with environmental science using our campus as a teaching tool, but we’ll be able to facilitate even more now with the lab.”   

To enable the latest round of renovations, EMSA turned to IFF for $1.4 million in credit enhancement to support $15.5 million in bond financing secured with assistance from Longhouse Capital Advisors. The bond not only provided EMSA with the capital needed for the construction project, but refinanced a previous IFF loan, covered transactional costs, and created an 18-month interest reserve and property replacement reserve for the school.  

A $1.4 million credit enhancement may not sound like a lot, but it’s hard to overstate how important it was to the project.”

“A $1.4 million credit enhancement may not sound like a lot, but it’s hard to overstate how important it was to the project,” says Dan Alexander, EMSA’s chief operating officer. “To their credit, our board of directors understood the vision and approved the project, but the cost was a stretch for us. Ultimately, we have to pay that money back, and, in that context, $1.4 million is not at all insignificant. EMSA is able to provide a rich experience for students because of the careful choices we make to balance competing priorities, like staffing and facilities. Money saved on debt service provides us with more resources to invest in the school’s educational experience.” 

Given the historically significant design of the campus’ facilities, and natural features surrounding the school buildings, preservation was a priority for EMSA, as was a minimally invasive construction project. To accomplish this, EMSA engaged Wheeler Kearns Architects for design, continuing a relationship with the firm that has transformed the campus in recent years. Tasked with carrying out the renovation was Bulley & Andrews, which completed more than $1 million worth of work as the financing was finalized earlier this year to ensure that renovations would be substantially completed in time for the 2023-2024 school year.    

“Looking at this phase of the campus’ revitalization as a whole, I’m proud of the history we’ve been able to preserve, and particularly the openness of the facility to natural light and the forest surrounding it,” says Alexander. “That will inspire and interest children and be beneficial to teachers. With this project, all of our students will be in first-class buildings that provide quite a bit of flexibility for instruction. It’s been a long process to get to this point, but we’ve retained the trust of parents and fulfilled a vision for the campus that we shared with them five years ago when they first enrolled their children in the school.” 

A long-term relationship bears fruit 

With the recent credit enhancement, EMSA extended a partnership with IFF that has seen the school evolve from little more than an idea to a well-established institution with a track record of success that was recently validated with a five-year renewal of the school’s charter authorization by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) – the longest possible term offered by the state body.  

EMSA’s founders, led by current Board Chair Kerry Kelly, first engaged IFF in 2014 in collaboration with the Illinois Network of Charter Schools to participate in a “Charter Starter” program designed to help fledgling schools get off the ground. That early guidance helped set EMSA’s course in the years ahead, positioning the school to lease the campus from the City of Elgin before welcoming 208 K-3 students through its doors for the 2018-2019 school year. Prior to opening, EMSA used an IFF loan of approximately $448,000 to make leasehold improvements to the first building the school occupied on the campus, which created several classrooms and a multi-purpose room.  

At the same time, EMSA moved forward with the development of its master plan for the campus to accommodate planned growth. During that period, IFF provided EMSA predevelopment support and a loan of roughly $974,000 to help offset costs incurred by EMSA leading up to the school’s purchase of the property for $1 from the City of Elgin in 2021.  

From the very beginning, it’s been critical to have IFF’s belief in what we hoped to accomplish, as well as a thought partner able to ask the right questions of us to help refine our plan.

Once control of the site was secured, EMSA embarked on phase two of renovations, which included the gut rehab of a vacant, 22,100-square-foot facility to develop middle school classrooms, a kitchen, a cafeteria/multi-purpose space, a gymnasium, new bathrooms, break-out and meeting spaces, and administrative offices. A 2,000-square-foot log cabin was similarly rehabbed, creating an “art barn” for students complete with exposed wood-beam ceilings and a wall dedicated to displaying students’ creations.   

Elsewhere on the campus, EMSA completed less substantial renovations to three other historic buildings to create warm, safe and dry conditions. This included limited demolition, environmental remediation, roof repair and replacements, and upgrades to ventilation, thus securing an additional 30,000 square feet for future instructional use. To facilitate this phase of the project, IFF provided EMSA with a $7.2 million loan that refinanced the school’s existing debt and provided the capital needed for construction.  

From the very beginning, it’s been critical to have IFF’s belief in what we hoped to accomplish, as well as a thought partner able to ask the right questions of us to help refine our plan,” says Alexander. “From the first loan that enabled us to begin operating to the recent credit enhancement, and everything in between, IFF has helped propel EMSA forward in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I hope that what we’ve been able to accomplish encourages other people who have a dream to pursue that dream and to know that there are partners out there who will connect them with the right people and give them good feedback when they need it most to realize their goals.”  


Credit enhancements at IFF

Since 2005, IFF has been a grantee in the U.S. Department of Education’s Credit Enhancement program, which awards funding to organizations to address the cost of acquiring, constructing, and renovating facilities by enhancing the availability of loans and bond financing. IFF typically deploys its credit enhancement to charter schools seeking capital from the bond market and commercial banks to drive down their interest rates, provide debt service reserve funds, and make it easier and more affordable for charter schools to borrow capital. 

Read about additional charter schools in the Midwest supported by IFF’s Capital Solutions and Real Estate Solutions


From left to right, exterior and interior photos of Elgin Math & Science Academy’s newly renovated administration building (courtesy of Bulley & Andrews), a photo of students in Elgin Math & Science Academy’s art barn (courtesy of Elgin Math & Science Academy)