A pioneering plan by a nationally known anti-poverty group to establish a charter school at a public housing complex was greeted at a Wednesday night community meeting with more skepticism than enthusiasm.
The hearing at the Oberia D. Dempsey Multi-Service Center on West 127th Street featured New York City Housing Authority chairman John Rhea and Harlem Children’s Zone president Geoffrey Canada, who laid out their plan for a new charter school in the St Nicholas public housing projects, a cluster of 14 buildings, each with 1,500 individual housing units.
While other schools are sited near public housing projects, this is the first time a private organization will construct a charter school on public-housing property. It will do so with the city’s robust financial support: The school is estimated to cost $100 million, with $60 million in funding from New York City and the balance raised by the Harlem Children’s Zone.
In addition to the construction of a new, multi-story building on the St Nicholas campus, Rhea said, the project would extend the “demapped” 129th Street, from its present cul-de-sac to a one-way through street, and require extensive new landscaping and the relocation of parking areas.
Since its founding in 1994, Canada’s Harlem Children Zone has become a national model, serving as the template for President Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative.
According to Canada, the Harlem Children’s Zone’s two existing Promise Academies are running out of space. “We have no capacity for any more kids,” he told the audience. The HCZ owns its headquarters, at Madison Avenue and 125th St, which was built with $44 million in private funds. Promise Academy I is housed there, along with the organization’s corporate offices. Promise Academy II shares space with two area public schools, P.S. 175 and the Choir Academy of Harlem school.
Canada approached NYCHA about developing a school in the projects to address Promise Academies’ capacity needs, according to Rhea, who has been head of NYCHA for less than a year.
The new Promise Academy school would eventually permit an additional 1,100 children to attend HCZ’s well-regarded charter school. Priority in the enrollment lottery would be given to residents of St Nick’s. In addition, Canada said, residents of St Nicholas housing would benefit from “100 full- and part-time” permanent and summer-youth jobs related to the project. “This is about education, and it is about economic empowerment,” said NYCHA’s Rhea.
But for some in attendance, it was about process. Tenant leaders said that flyers were posted widely, and Rhea said that workers from NYCHA and HCZ “knocked on every single door,” but residents shouted out “that is a lie!” and complained they did not learn about the proposed school construction until “it was a done deal.” When one St Nicholas resident stepped up to the mic to say, “You’re not doing this the right way. You’re going all around us,” cheers and applause broke out in the audience.
One woman challenged Canada to meet the needs of children like her son, who has autism and attention deficit disorder. Canada admitted that the school project did not yet make any particular arrangements for students with special needs, saying “I did not realize the need was as large,” but added: “Our intent is that the facilities will be used by the entire community,” referring to physical facilities, including a state-of-the-art gym, but not specifically including enrollment in the new Promise Academy school.
Some parents also asked why the city wouldn’t put the same funding into local public schools, rather than creating a new building for a charter school. But other parents spoke of their children’s successes at the Promise Academy schools.
Hearings on the proposed project are anticipated to continue through the summer. The next is at 7 p.m. on May 19th at the St Nicholas Community Center, 2374 Frederick Douglass, Jr. Blvd, followed by a session at 6 p.m. on June 10th, at the Harlem Children’s Zone, 35 East 125th Street.