Modern School Lessons: Reading, Writing, and Real Estate
The sale of a historic Central Austin estate puts private schools in jeopardy
With the potential sale of one of Austin's historic estates, speculation has been rife that two of the city's most unusual and innovative private schools – the Sri Atmananda Memorial School, or SAMS, and the Griffin School – could be made homeless. Located next to the Hancock Golf Course at the junction of 41st and Red River, the 9.5-acre campus houses both schools. Currently, Sri Atmananda is affiliated with the KPM Institute, the registered 501(c)3 nonprofit that owns the estate and follows the teachings of Indian sage Sri K. Padmanabha Menon. However, it is establishing its own separate school board and, SAMS Director Pattye Henderson explained, "As part of the transition process, the KPM Institute decided to sell the property." While KPM's decision to sell has cast an uncertain future over both schools, another decision by the nonprofit may give at least Sri Atmananda a little more security. "At this point in time," Henderson said, "the board has pretty much resolved that [it's] only going to sell to someone who will allow us to stay as a tenant."
In 1995, after visiting the model Sri Atmananda Memorial School in the southwest Indian state of Kerala, Henderson established her own school on the Austin site. For the last dozen years, the estate has also been home to the Griffin School, which operates under its own board and leases the long hall at the center of the campus. Both schools diverge from the educational mainstream, employing small classes and low student-teacher ratios. Sri Atmananda is a nondenominational K-12 school that adheres to the KPM Approach to Children, while Griffin provides college prep for grades 9-12 with a heavy emphasis on the arts and on learning as a community experience. Henderson called Griffin "a great partner" with "a great program that really nurtures creativity." However, she admitted, due to the possibility of a sale, "we've both been in a tizzy for a while." So while the plan is to keep SAMS on the property, Henderson said it would be hard to make the same promise for Griffin. "It just depends on whether there's some use for some other part of the property," she said.
Griffin's co-founder and school Director Adam Wilson said he's always known that relocation was a possibility. His school has been on a series of short-term tenancy agreements, and there have been offers for the site before. He explained, "At the beginning of every lease, they've always told us, 'We have different plans for that building, and the end of this lease will certainly be the last time, so you need to plan to move.'" However, he added, "We've been here for 12 years, and it's home to us, so moving would be a big, big deal."
Built in 1928 by cotton broker Edgar Perry on the site of an old quarry, the estate remains one of the largest privately owned tracts of land in Central Austin to escape contemporary redevelopment, as well as one of its most architecturally interesting. The core of the campus boasts a Mediterranean-style manor that currently houses the SAMS high school students, the KPM Institute, and the Victorian-Gothic-influenced hall that Griffin leases. The property has a long history as a home for education, having housed two church schools (St. Mary's Academy and Holy Cross High School) and a private high school (the Perry School) since the Perrys moved into the Driskill Hotel in 1948. "We're very attached to this property," Henderson explained, adding that there is a personal component for her as well. Before housing SAMS and the Griffin School, she said, the property "was in my family for 20 years, and my mother loved it and tried to restore it."
In the mean time, both schools are keeping up with their lessons and both are preparing for open houses (SAMS on Oct. 24 and Griffin on Nov. 12), while Griffin staff and students plan an art show in December. On one hand, Wilson said, "We need to be ready to make the jump if something happens. On the other, it's been many, many times that this has happened, and we've been able to stay."