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First day at charter school ends long wait for Astoria

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When a group of parents banded together to found a charter school in Astoria, the education they envisioned for neighborhood children sounded too good to be true, and for a tumultuous couple of years it almost was.

So it did not really matter Friday that the classroom furniture had only arrived the day before or that workers still were standing on ladders to fix pipes in the ceiling.

The Our World Neighborhood Charter School, which parents had dreamed up four years earlier while sitting in their living rooms, finally had a home.

“You have been on a roller-coaster ride that is not for the faint-hearted,” the president of the school’s board, Michael Buonasora, told parents during a ribbon-cutting ceremony held in front of the school Friday afternoon.

Classes started Monday at 36-12 35th Ave., a historic city-owned building across from the American Museum for the Moving Image that originally was part of the Paramount Pictures movie studio complex in the 1920s.

“It went incredibly well,” Buonasora said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Everyone went to their classrooms right on time, they started teaching right away.”

Because of the delayed opening, all of the students attending Our World Neighborhood already had started the year at other schools. The parents of more than 400 students who had secured slots toured the facility Friday and Saturday to decide whether or not to ultimately enroll their children.

The head count on the first day was 319, but Buonasora expects that number to gradually rise to meet the school’s current capacity of 450 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It ultimately will extend to the eighth grade with a student body of 675.

Although Our World Neighborhood was one of seven charter schools approved last year by the State University of New York board of trustees, its anticipated September 2001 opening was scratched when a last-minute snag ended lease negotiations with the Variety Boys and Girls Club on 21st Street, where the facility originally was expected to be located.

Once the school had secured its 35th Avenue building, however, it faced a second potentially fatal hurdle after the late discovery that zoning regulations would not permit the building to be renovated as a school.

The mayor’s office ultimately granted a waiver in June, allowing the school to avoid a lengthy approval process that would have stalled the opening yet again.

“This has been really an up-and-down sort of thing, all centered around real estate,” said the school’s principal, Brian Ferguson. “You have to find a building that you can do the work in.”

The doubts endured until construction was nearly completed.

“There are guys who are chipping away at the building, there are holes in the building, and you say, ‘What in the world are they doing? They are destroying it, they’re not putting it together,’” Ferguson said, recalling his reaction as construction was underway.

“It wasn’t until last week that it was confirmed for sure to open,” said Dega Omar, 36, a filmmaker from Astoria who was sending her two young children to the school. “There is a hard-core group of parents who founded this school, and I’m excited the dream has finally come true.”

Although all eyes were focused Friday on the children who were awaiting their first day at a new public school — some eagerly, others with dread — the credit went entirely to the dedicated group of parents who brought the school from conception to reality.

“A lesser board would have seen the idea kind of vanish, but they stuck with it,” said James Merriman, the executive director of the Charter Schools Institute, which oversees the applications to SUNY. “Starting a charter school is not for sissies. It takes real persistence and real stick-to-it-ness.”

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

Our World Neighborhood was started to create a progressive school that reflects the diversity of western Queens and offers an alternative to the overcrowded classrooms of School District 30.

“The public schools are crowded,” said Cindy Emanuel, 32, an Astoria Houses resident who is sending three of her children to the school. “I needed a different outlet, I think, to give my kids a chance.”

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

Posted 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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