Walking into the newly refurbished building that is now Our World Neighborhood Charter School (OWN), a parent must intuitively sense that any of their students are embarking on a special journey. The building is colorful, bright, big and clean; sun streams through the windows, and the administrative and teaching staff are eager to help the students. Their work is unique in many ways. OWN Charter School is a tuition-free, public school in District 30, Queens, but it is able to accept students from any district. Current enrollment at the school is 450 students, encompassing kindergarten through fifth grade. This year’s fifth-graders will move up through the school, until the school expands classes to the eighth grade. The student body is anticipated to reach 675 by year five.
Open at last September 30 marked the opening of the school that almost never was, however. For three years, concerned parents, some of whom became board members, worked tirelessly to get the idea off the ground. The New York State charter for the school was approved in February 2000, and the school was set to open in August 2001; however, the property deal fell through at the eleventh hour and plans were rearranged for the school to open in August 2002. Even then, the opening seemed doubtful — again because of much red tape with real estate. The school’s site, at 36-12 35th Avenue in Astoria, was zoned to be industrial. To get the building re-zoned for a school would have meant even more red tape, with the end result not known for months. Instead, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott was able to secure a waiver on the borough’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) and the property was converted to an appropriate school building. The construction work only began in June 2002, so the board reset the school opening to late September. Principal Brian Ferguson is no stranger to the workings of charter schools. He has been a school administrator for many years. He came to OWN after four years as principal of a charter school in Philadelphia. “On a daily basis, I have seen the tremendous support from the board members. It is overwhelming. The people in this community have been very supportive as well,” Ferguson says. “The atmosphere and energy at this school is unmatched.” Although the school opening occurred a few weeks after the district’s start date, the school will be able to make its attendance requirements by scheduling classes on days that the rest of the district has off, Ferguson says. For example, the traditional February break will be shortened, as well as spring break. The school year will probably extend to June 30, 2003. It is already implementing an extended school day, with school beginning at 8am and finishing at 3pm. The vacation schedule is but one wrinkle to be being worked out. As Board of Trustees president Mike Buonasora points out, there are a few more ‘kinks’ that must be smoothed out. “For the first two to three weeks, all of our classrooms were on the first and second floors as the finishing touches were completed on the third floor. Only then were we able to move the higher grades to the third floor. The fourth floor will be available in fall 2003.” Early on, there were no hot lunches available, although deli-style cold foods were available from the first day of school. The staff worked with different vendors in setting up a hot lunch program once the school year began. Bus transportation for entitled students wasn’t available until mid-October. OWN administrators are currently working to secure grants and funds so that after-school programs will be up and running by next year. For now, there is no required school uniform, but the principal and the board are reviewing an appropriate school dress code for the future. “We’ve came so far during the summer; so much happened, but some things couldn’t get done by September 30. So rather than delay the opening further, we’re working out those wrinkles while the students are attending classes,” Buonasora explains.
A curriculum that’s unique One of the school’s many unique aspects is its curriculum. OWN is managed by Mosaica Education, a for-profit educational company that manages 24 schools across the country. OWN is Mosica’s first school in New York State. Mosaica uses its own proprietary Paragon curriculum, dubbed “an integrated humanities curriculum based on the history of great ideas” by the management company’s president and CEO, Michael J. Connelly. The morning classes are the tried and true basics: reading, writing, math and science. The afternoon session is “project driven”, as Rita Hackel Chapin, executive vice-president of Mosaica, explains. “If the students are studying South American rainforests, the teachers will guide them in building a rainforest in the classroom. If they’re studying Ancient Egypt, they’ll get a box of sugar cubes, and they’ll work in small groups and figure out how to build a pyramid from them,” Chapin says. OWN teachers have had extensive training in and are all comfortable with the program, she adds. Students’ study of history will also be interesting, Chapin says, because this subject is taught in chronological order. For instance, each grade will study Ancient Rome during the same six-week period, with the lessons tailored to the appropriate grade level. After six weeks, all students will move on to the next historical time period, a method that offers an interdisciplinary study of the history of world culture. Video and movie making are also integrated into class lessons. Since the building was originally part of the Kaufman-Astoria movie studios, the school had to agree to incorporate video education. Katha Cato, the arts coordinator at the Henry Street Settlement and an OWN board member, developed this aspect. The Kaufman-Astoria Studios are eager to work with the school, she says, and students may be able to use screening rooms on the studio premises.
Now to the future Founding member and current board member Mary Bogle has been involved in creating the school from early on. She echoes sentiment for all of the board members when she revels in the success of their accomplishment. “For so long, we were on a roller coaster ride, not knowing if this would ever really happen. Even after we got the go-ahead for the construction, which didn’t come easily, we didn’t know if the deadlines could be met. Then, even after the construction was completed, we had to wait for our certificate of occupancy, which only came through three days before student orientation. And finally, knowing we had the school up and running, we had to wait to see if the students would come. We had complete enrollment on paper, but because of the delayed opening, many parents enrolled their children in other schools. I spoke to many of those parents who were struggling with the decision of whether or not to take their children out of the school they were already attending. But the students are here. The school is almost full. What we accomplished here is only now beginning to sink in. It’s a great feeling.” For more information on the school, or to fill out an application, call (718) 777-8233 or visit www.owncs.org.