During his NFL playing days, Robert Golden’s job was to demolish his opponent’s offense. On Friday, Golden put his demolition skills to a different use: He climbed into the cab of a giant excavator and then started to claw down the front of an abandoned building on the site of the new Golden Charter Academy campus.
Some of the students who will be taking classes at the new site on Belmont Avenue, just across the street from Fresno Chaffee Zoo, chanted “knock it down, knock it down” from the windows of their school buses at Golden, the school’s founder, president, and CEO.
The youngsters had earlier donned yellow plastic hard hats and taken up little hammers for their own demo photo op on the back side of the building, formerly the Hmong Memorial Chapel.
The school’s architect is Arthur Dyson. The internationally recognized architect, whose home base is Fresno, designed University High School on the Fresno State campus and the Woodward Park Library, among many projects. The new $20 million Golden Charter Academy’s design shares some similarities with University High and will be a bold and dramatic addition to a part of Fresno that has been long overlooked.
“When I talked about developing a school, I wanted to do something that was going to be uniquely different from your traditional education model schools,” Golden said. “Not only does our curriculum exemplify that, but I wanted our facility to exemplify it.
“So when the board and I interviewed different architects, Art Dyson was the one that stood out because we wanted to create a facility that when people drive by it, they say, ‘What’s that?’ And if you know Art Dyson, you know his work is going to definitely catch your eye. So I was really excited to choose him as our architect but more excited to see this project come to fruition.”
Another Hub for Fresno?
The zoo’s chief executive officer and director, Jon Dohlin, was on hand for the demolition ceremony and told GV Wire that he hopes having a sparkling, $20 million investment in the neighborhood will not only lead to other nearby development but also encourage city and county leaders to create an arts, education, and cultural hub there.
“This is a great opportunity to set the tone for development around the park and the zoo.” — Jon Dohlin, CEO, Fresno Chaffee Zoo
“On the surface, this great school, it’s a great partnership, a great opportunity for the kids and for the community,” he said. “Beyond that, though, as you know, Roding Park is one of our crown jewels in the Fresno parks system. But it has always been or for a long time has been surrounded by things that aren’t up to snuff. This is a great opportunity to set the tone for development around the park and the zoo.”
Dohlin said he envisions a future when the Roeding Park area could be home to the Fresno Philharmonic, the Fresno Art Museum, Arte Americas, other arts organizations, artists’ studios, mixed-use housing, and retail stores, a place that will draw not only people from across the county and Valley but from Northern and Southern California arriving on the state’s high-speed train.
Although the conversations with local officials to this point have been preliminary, he said, “I do think that there is an understanding that the cultural institutions in this city could also benefit from being brought together in a district where they can help each other and draw together, and that we can intersperse the kinds of activities we see in cultural hubs in other cities. And that’s what Fresno lacks.”
Golden Charter, which opened two years ago in a former parochial school northwest of Roeding Park, provides a “place-based” environmental education in partnership with the zoo. Students visit at least once weekly but also explore the environment in the San Joaquin River Parkway and other locations, Golden said.
Friday’s demolition ceremony was a milestone in the school’s continued evolution. Golden Charter Academy has obtained sufficient financing to buy two sites on Belmont for the school and for a student play area on the block across the street, hire an architect to design the school, and for construction, he said.
To pay off the financing over the next 30 years, Golden Charter officials and supporters will need to do a lot of fundraising, Golden said.
The new school is scheduled to open in August 2025.
Right now the school’s enrollment is 337 students in grades TK-5, and it will gradually add another grade level each year until it has grades TK-8. The school has a waiting list of 200 students. Because it is chartered through Fresno Unified School District, Fresno Unified kids get first dibs on enrollments, Golden said.
Although the school’s initial enrollments were concentrated from southwest Fresno, the student body is more diverse now and draws from one-third of Fresno’s ZIP codes, he said.
Black and Gold
Golden says he still gets support from his friends and connections in the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers organization for the school. One of the Steelers team owners came to Fresno last year to visit the school, and Golden says he’s spreading the word about the school through NFL networks.
So it might not come as a surprise that Golden Charter’s school colors of black and gold are the same as Edison High, Golden’s alma mater, and the Steelers.
“I’m starting to believe that black and gold runs in the family for sure,” Golden said with a chuckle.