Setting SAEL: Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning finds home in Nevada City Elementary building |

Setting SAEL: Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning finds home in Nevada City Elementary building

James MacIntosh lends his hand in making repairs and upgrades to the existing structure at Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning's new location in the former Nevada City Elementary Building
Photo by Jennifer Nobles

Standing in the grand, art-deco style rotunda of the Nevada City Elementary building in Nevada City, Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning Principal Erica Crane sees more than just a structure.

She sees promise, hope, and new beginnings just waiting for the school’s students to fill the halls and make them a reality.

After sharing school and office space with Silver Springs High School since its inception in 2013, Crane and her staff recently made the move to the Main Street location on which Nevada City Elementary School was dedicated in 1938.

After the elementary school closed in 2010, Yuba River Charter School moved in and remained until this June, when it charted a course of its own with a newly built campus on Rough and Ready Highway in Grass Valley.

“We are just so excited to have a home,” Crane said Monday, guiding a tour of her school’s new home. “Our roommates at Silver Springs were so wonderful, but it’s so nice to have our own space.”

Class sizes at Sierra Academy are growing exponentially, Crane said. They taught about 180 teenage students last year, and this year that number will grow to approximately 210 ninth through 12th graders.

While walking the halls of the campus, Crane notes that there are many features the school hasn’t before enjoyed, namely hallways, a multipurpose room to call their own, and an inviting office for students, parents and teachers to meet.

Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning follows a whole school model which Crane said focuses on project-based learning. Students don’t just write papers and turn them into teachers, she explained. Instead their works are shared with community organizations such as South Yuba River Citizens League, Bear Yuba Land Trust, Utah’s Place at Hospitality House and Sierra Streams Institute.

“Community-organization wise, they feel very positive when working with teenagers,” said Crane. “Kids care. They want to do good things, and they want to fix things.”

“We’re just trying to be another one of the many good high schools (in the area),” said Crane. “This is interdisciplinary, project-based, student-engaged learning, and it’s a different learning model than traditional in some ways, but it’s research based and it comes from best practices.”

Crane pointed out that recent graduates of the academy have gone on to such notable schools as Reed, Oberlin, UC Davis and Cal Poly.

The 10-year lease that Sierra Academy has signed is comforting and encouraging, Crane said, as the long-term agreement will allow the school to realize more significant goals. A survey is handed out to students each year, collecting ideas as to how the school and its campus can better serve them.

Crane said the community and Nevada City School District have been supportive, and the community-based group Friends of Nevada City Elementary have offered its approval as well.

“People wanted this to (remain) a school,” said Crane, “and we wanted to keep the parts of it that are super important. We love the rotunda. We want folks to know that we need to figure out a way to make it our home but also honor the history of the place.”

The original bell still hangs in its tower, waiting for enthusiastic arms to pull its heavy weight, marking the beginning of the day, or just a monumental occasion for the school or its students.

The school will open for the year on Aug. 15, along with other area schools. Crane is excited for the school to realize its new space and offer students a stimulating learning environment.

While there are boxes still to be unpacked, a team of workers are painting, cleaning and putting the finishing touches on the building. Crane said the feeling of knowing the school will be theirs for the long-term means they can move in and create a space all their own.

“Everything has potential,” she said. “We feel good.”

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at or at 530-477-4231.

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