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How Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy provides students with a space to dream and honors a legacy

Transforming an outdated space into an innovative learning environment for the next generation of students represents the pinnacle of education architecture and design. For Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy (CBEA), a magnet school serving the Aurora Public Schools system and the greater Denver area, supporting the dreams of students came with a challenge: to design a comprehensive program that fosters the entrepreneurial spirit of these Aurora-based youth while also designing a space to match the program’s needs.

Laura Burke
, founding principal at CBEA, engaged Wold Architects and Engineers to help transition the old mid-20th century concrete building into a modern school featuring a theme of innovation and entrepreneurship. Additionally, the district aimed to honor Clara Brown’s legacy with a program dedicated to inspiring students to become dreamers and trailblazers.

"I often say that at the Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy, we like to live in the realm of possibilities. Wold helped us create a physical space that aligns with that vision. We intentionally designed different spaces throughout the building so our students and staff could think beyond traditional learning to a more modern, truly entrepreneurial way of collaborating and innovating. This reimagined environment helps empower everyone to believe, and act, as if everything really is possible.”
Laura Burke, Principal, Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy

The mission was simple: create a flexible, stand-out campus that drives curiosity, encourages an entrepreneurial spirit and leaves a lasting impression for years to come. Our team worked with the district to design a facility that embodies this vision by uniting our design around the following elements.

Honoring the legacy of historical leaders like Clara Brown

The challenge of creating a campus and curriculum for Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy also carried the responsibility of paying homage to the legacy of the school’s namesake. The school (previously named Wheeling Elementary School) was renamed after Clara Brown, a local entrepreneur who helped freed slaves relocate to Colorado. A former enslaved person herself, Brown relocated from Virginia to help lead the settlement of freed slaves in Colorado during the state’s Gold Rush. After establishing the first laundromat in Central City in 1866, Brown became fondly known as the "Angel of the Rockies" for helping people in need.

With Brown’s entrepreneurial spirit still very much a part of the community’s history, Burke knew they wanted to honor Clara Brown – a self-starting leader with a rich history in the community – as the namesake of her new school. The homage to Brown is apparent from the moment a student or visitor sees the memorial wall dedicated in her honor, and is on display at every turn in the refurbished building.

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Dreaming big with the community within a realistic budget

The dreamers who made Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy a reality knew their efforts would be all for naught unless the school could achieve its critical goal of increasing enrollment. Amid a downward trend of enrollment in this area of Aurora, the district sought innovative ways to attract the next generation of entrepreneurs as students. Ultimately, the key to making CBEA an appealing learning environment for its students was to dream big by creating an engaging magnet school.

Big dreams, however, tend to come with some obstacles. In the initial stages of the design process, the CBEA project faced budgetary uncertainty since it was a new initiative for the district. Achieving these big design goals appeared more difficult without a financial framework, and the challenge of ideating at this juncture presented a roadblock. Our team was tasked with helping CBEA and the district craft a master plan, breaking the process into specific, attainable goals.

At Wold, master planning is paramount to the design and construction process – it allows us to view the broader scope of our projects and increases the efficiency of the work that comes later. For the CBEA project, a comprehensive master plan helped provide clarity for Phase I and II, spurred partly by community input and greatly by educational dreamers with a clear vision. This paved the way for our team to integrate these details into the school’s design and layout. Renovations are now set for the summer of 2024.

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Aligning with the dreamer's design objectives

In addition to honoring Clara Brown, the district was determined to check off some very important boxes in the design process, specifically around big dreams and flexibility. Standard, static design choices were reimagined with flexibility and innovation. While schools built in the mid-20th century (when the Clara Brown building was originally constructed) experimented with pits and changes in elevation, modern education designers know this can impede flexibility and accessibility for students. Our team identified a chance to modernize the building with an abundance of open spaces and small breakout areas by filling in the pits. These spaces are crucial to a flexible learning environment suited for a variety of learners. Every detail is precisely considered, from the functionality of the furniture to open up each room for activities and small groups, to the placement of the rooms in the layout of the building.

For example, the school is divided into the “wonder zone” and “idea zone” on either side of the building’s core to emphasize the concepts of dreaming and innovation. Students also have easy access to a creation station, collaboration station and innovation station, as well as a green screen studio, 3D printing room and a zSpace AR/VR wall. If the goal is to support students in creative exploration, the design of their school must cultivate creativity – and with amenities and opportunities like these, CBEA ensures that students can dream as big as they’d like.

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Wold is thrilled to be part of the Clara Brown school community, and we look forward to continuing to collaborate on the project. Clara Brown Entrepreneurial Academy is all about dreaming, leaving children with a sense of optimism, hope and confidence for their futures. Many children enter school full of passion and enthusiasm for learning, but can feel defeated and burnt out by the time they reach middle school. Wold knows, though, that a reframing of the students' experience in education can help reduce burnout and foster a positive learning environment when combined with elements like improved campus design, community programming and everything in between. Wold is honored to partner with the CBEA and the Aurora Public Schools District to support these students as they progress past primary education on their journey to college and just maybe, creating their own businesses. With well-rounded, success-oriented students like those at CBEA, it’s plain to see that Clara Brown’s legacy will live on more than 150 years after her own entrepreneurial journey began.

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