Astoria charter school prepares for Sept. start

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Avoiding what would have been its second false start in as many years, a fledgling Astoria charter school has secured a facility and is expected to open in September with a student body nearly twice as large as originally expected.

The Our World Neighborhood Charter School, the brainchild of a coalition of neighborhood parents who sought an alternative to the crowded schools of District 30, received a waiver from the mayor’s office this month allowing them to convert an office building at 36-12 35th Ave. into a school. Without the waiver, which is frequently granted to the Board of Education for school construction in manufacturing zones, the project would have been delayed by a lengthy approval process.

“One minute the school’s going ahead, and the next minute the school’s not happening at all,” said Mary Bogle, a founding parent and member of the board. “We are moving ahead now. Everything’s a go.”

The victory caps off a tumultuous period in which the fate of the school hung in the balance, although its timely opening still hinges upon prompt completion of the necessary construction.

“It’s still kind of touch and go,” said Mike Buonasora, the president of the school’s board of directors. “We’ve got a very, very tight construction window to get all the construction done.”

The school originally had been expected to open last September, but a last-minute snag in lease negotiations with the Variety Boys and Girls Club, where the facility would have been located, forced the opening to be pushed back a year as school leaders sought another site.

The school’s new home sits across the street from the American Museum of the Moving Image in a city-owned building. The lease will be transferred over to the school from its current tenant, a technology firm, as soon as a contract is signed with the developer that will renovate the space.

The proximity to the borough’s film hub has prompted school leaders to add a film and video component to the current curriculum, giving students a chance to create picture stories, write plays and eventually develop movies of their own. The effort has been boosted by a newly formed advisory panel for the school, which includes playwright David Hwang, independent filmmaker and “Survivor” host Jeff Probst, and filmmaker Deborah Kampmeier.

The school is expected to open with nearly twice as many students as originally expected , 450 as opposed to 250. Although it eventually will grow to be a K-8 school with three classes in every grade for a total of about 675 students, it will end at the fifth grade in its first year.

But the school is expected to open with four classes for both kindergarten and first grade, a strategy to build up the school with the students who will be there the longest. There will be three classes for the second and third grade, and the fourth and fifth grade each will have two.

A lottery already was held to select the student body in April 2001, drawing an enthusiastic response from the community with 419 applicants vying for about 250 spots.

But once the opening was delayed, that enrollment was frozen and carried over to this school year, meaning anyone who already was selected was guaranteed a spot in the school. A second lottery was held a few months ago among this year’s 250 applicants. As of now, 433 students have been accepted to the school and 100 are sitting on the waiting list, and the third and fifth grades still have vacant slots.

“Applications are still available and we are looking for more students,” Bogle said. “We’re pretty much full, but we expect that there are going to be parents that decide not to send their children.”

Charter schools were established in New York through a 1998 state law which says any combination of parents, teachers, school administrators and community residents can apply to found a school that operates independently of the laws governing all other public schools.

Founded by a group of parents in Astoria who started pooling their ideas together more than three years ago, Our World Neighborhood was one of only seven charter schools approved last year by the State University of New York Board of Trustees, which selected the school from among 42 applicants.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Updated 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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