YONKERS – Renovation work has begun at the site of the city’s sole charter school, which is expected to open its doors to its first freshman high school class next fall.
The state Board of Regents approved the Charter School of Educational Excellence’s application for a 400-student high school extension in June after the school, which currently serves grades K-8, said it would limit the number of high school students who can be from Yonkers.
School districts lose funding for every resident student who attends a charter school. Many in Yonkers opposed the charter school’s expansion, contending that the cash-strapped district could not afford to see tax dollars follow city students to the charter.
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Now, 50 percent of eligible seats at CSEE will be given to students from Yonkers, but the other 50 percent have to be filled with students from outside the city school district. This change will affect all new students K-12.
Before, any student was admitted via lottery. The vast majority — 80 percent — of the school’s roughly 700 students last school year were from Yonkers, the rest from New York City.
A grade will be added to CSEE’s high school each year until the school has its first senior class in fall 2022.
The Regents’ approval came just about a year after the school’s founders applied for the extension and held a public hearing about the proposal that prompted a raucous debate between supporters of the charter and those who favored Yonkers Public Schools.
CSEE received more than 500 applications for 74 open seats for last school year.
Several charter schools in Rochester and Buffalo have also taken a regional approach to enrollment, the state Education Department said.
Following the money
Sobeida Cruz, a co-founder of CSEE, said the school’s leaders decided to change its application after “hearing the pleas” from Yonkers Public Schools.
“There was some thought that we shouldn’t take all the kids from Yonkers because there are some of the belief, which is a misconception, that charter schools take money away from the districts,” Cruz said.
Charter schools are privately run and, in part, publicly funded with money from school districts that must pay a tuition for each resident student who attends. Charter schools outside of New York City are authorized by the Board of Regents or SUNY.
Last school year, Yonkers was expected to pay $15,023 in tuition per student, or $9.28 million, for 618 city students attending CSEE, according to the charter’s most recent annual report.
School districts get partial reimbursement from the state for money lost to charters. In 2016-17, Yonkers was reimbursed more than $5.7 million for its charter costs through a combination of state Foundation Aid and other formulas, according to the state Education Department.
Yonkers Public Schools Superintendent Edwin Quezada said the expansion of the charter school will still come at a steep cost for the school system, despite the capping of the percentage of Yonkers students who can attend.
“In the long run it will help the Yonkers Public Schools financially. It will not be as costly … but it will still be an over $10 million expense,” Quezada said. “We still have dire financial issues in this district and any dollars that come out of the budget are impactful to us.”
Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano is supportive of the charter expansion and said he “never subscribed” to the idea that CSEE was a drain on Yonkers Public Schools.
“As mayor, I know my job is to be the chief cheerleader for the public school system, and I am,” Spano said. “But the charter school is very much part of our community and very much a part of the people that live in our community, and I don’t want it to be second rate.”
The Charter School of Educational Excellence will be allowed to recruit students from anywhere in the state. Each student’s home district is responsible for providing transportation to charter schools and is reimbursed for those costs by the state.
Both CSEE and Yonkers Public School leaders say their schools have a lot to offer students.
On last year’s state tests for grades 3-8, about 27 percent of students in Yonkers Public Schools were deemed proficient in English language arts and 29 percent in math. At CSEE, 67 percent of students were considered proficient in English and 71 percent in math.
On the other hand, Yonkers last year became the first of New York’s “Big 5” city school districts to surpass an 80-percent graduation rate.Nearly 83 percent of Yonkers students in the Class of 2017 graduated in four years.
A new high school
CSEE’s high school students will first attend classes at the former Our Lady of the Rosary Church, which the charter school bought from the New York Archdiocese for $3.2 million. The church building is next to CSEE’s current school building on Warburton Avenue.
The church’s main space will become a gym and its upper-floor rooms renovated into classrooms. Two vacant buildings on the property will be razed and a new high school building will be built, along with two athletic fields. The new school is expected to open in fall 2020.
“Especially our children who we’ve had since kindergarten, we want them to stay in the same culture,” Cruz said. “They come together as a community, so now we’re going to have them together as a community in high school.”
The cost of renovating the church and building the new school is estimated to be $40 million, Cruz said. CSEE’s plans to take out municipal bonds with the Yonkers Industrial Development Agency and pay back the debt over time with funds from private donor funds and fundraisers.
They’ve raised about $250,000 so far, Cruz said.
Charter school leaders will also be focusing on recruitment efforts in the region to prepare for expansion.
Since opening in 2005, the K-8 school has grown to a capacity of 690 students. With the high school addition, the charter will have a new maximum capacity of 1,129 students across grades K-12.
Cruz said the school is confident it can recruit students from outside Yonkers to fill the necessary seats. Officials will visit nearby towns, have booths at farmers markets and festivals, and distribute flyers to get the word out.
“When we first started the school, I’m going to say maybe 70 percent of our students were coming in from the Bronx,” she said. “We feel confident enough that we can get the student population because of how we educate children in this school.”