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A New School Rises in the Bronx

June 28, 2016
Cynthia Rosario builds a new school in her home borough

Cynthia Rosario grew up in the Bronx and had 16 years of experience as a teacher, staff developer and school counselor before she was authorized to open a public charter school in the Bronx.

But her hometown advantage and career experience didn’t make mastering public school facilities issues easy. Each step of the way — from finding a temporary startup space for her school to building a permanent space to financing her facilities — was a challenging process full of hard decisions.

Rosario said she had to defer the opening of her school by a year when she found out two weeks before the charter school lottery that the public space she wanted to share with a traditional district public school was no longer available. She and her board scrambled to find a space, working with commercial real estate agents, but, she said, “We didn’t even know the questions to ask.”

Rosario ended up putting her opening on hold so she could find the space that her students and teachers needed.

“It was disappointing to a lot of families that were already interested in our school,” she said.

The next year, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, Rosario opened Heketi Community Charter School in a shared space with another charter school, serving a population that was 33% African American, 65% Hispanic and 92.5% eligible for free and reduced price lunch. She named the school “Heketi” after the Taíno word for “one.” Taínos are the indigenous people of the Caribbean, representing the heritage of a large portion of the Spanish-speaking population in the South Bronx she was serving.

As Rosario opened for the first day of classes, she also partnered with Civic Builders to create a permanent home for the school.

She said working with Civic Builders — an organization with experience and a track record of getting projects done on time and on budget — allowed her to focus her energy on education and let Civic Builders manage the financing and construction.

She’d heard a lot of horror stories from other charter school leaders building schools. One lost $2 million when equipment was stolen from an unsecured site, for example. Other projects ran over budget or over time.

Her school building — created in a former ice factory — was supposed to be completed in two years, and it was ready in less.

She said whenever colleagues ask about creating new school buildings, she tells them to follow her example.

“Save yourself the headache, the time and the frustration, and go to an organization like Civic Builders that has already done it,” she said. “The board and I — we just couldn’t have undertaken that on our own. There are too many details that they understand that we can’t because we’re educators.”

Even with the advantages she had, she said affording facilities isn’t easy as a charter school in New York. Today, she said, facilities and operating costs constitute 27% of her budget. This means she has to make tough decisions, such as paying for facilities rather than a reading specialist and going without an assistant principal year after year.

“There are all these tradeoffs every year,” she said, “because our facilities costs are so high."

Building Equity Initiative
The Building Equity Initiative is an unprecedented effort to make it easier and more affordable for public charter schools to find, secure and renovate facilities.
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