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New Harlem Children's Zone building planned for public housing

The city and the Harlem Children’s Zone announced a deal today that would create more charter school space in Harlem — without, officials hope, setting off a new front in the bitter space wars there.

The deal would have the city and philanthropists team up to fund construction of a new building on the grounds of a Harlem housing project, the Saint Nicholas Houses, HCZ President Geoffrey Canada and New York City Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea said.

The new building would eventually nearly double the number of students in HCZ schools without imposing on nearby district schools in Harlem. The convenient deal could avoid political headaches, but it will also likely raise questions about whether erecting a new $100 million building in Harlem is the best use of city capital dollars.

HCZ’s two charter schools are currently run out of three sites, two of which share space with district schools. When the new building opens, Promise Academy 1 would move out of the space it currently shares with P.S. 175. The zone’s second school will continue to split its grades between the building it currently shares with the Choir Academy of Harlem and HCZ’s own building.

“If they’re going to build their own complex, I think that’s a very good idea,” said Dianne Johnson, president of Harlem’s District 5 parent council. “That’s what we’ve been pushing for.”

To build the 1,300-seat school, HCZ is relying on a city program that provides capital funding to charter schools, which don’t receive any state funding for school construction. Canada’s organization is tasked with raising $40 million and the city will cover the remaining 60 percent of the project’s cost.

The city’s charter capital funding program has been criticized for allowing politically well-connected charter operators like Canada and PAVE Academy Charter School founder Spencer Robertson to use city funds to create new schools in neighborhoods that are not the most pressed for space. City officials respond that the program increases the total number of seats in city-owned buildings at a discount. When it is finished, the Department of Education will own the building and lease it to HCZ for a minimal fee.

Building the new school in the public housing development will likely be more expensive than building on land acquired from a private developer because of the additional construction required to break up the housing complex’s superblock, HCZ and NYCHA officials said today.

But Canada and Rhea argued that school’s benefit to the surrounding community justifies the extra cost. HCZ and NYCHA officials are pitching the new building as a continuation of the Zone’s mission to integrate education and social services and connect an isolated housing development to the wider community. Residents of the Saint Nicholas Houses would also receive an admissions preference to the school, and officials said that residents would also receive a preference for an anticipated 100 jobs created by the new school.

“If you asked in the long run if you think that this will be more important for the people of Harlem, the answer would be yes,” Canada said.

The charter school will not be the city’s first to open in a public housing site. This school year, Coney Island Prep began to lease space in a public housing development’s community center. The Brooklyn charter school paid the housing authority $68,000 for its first-year lease on the space.

The Zone aims to raise the funds for the project, go through the approval process and construct the building in time to open the school in the fall of 2011, Canada said. “We are literally out of space,” Canada said.

NYCHA and HCZ officials said they have consulted with Saint Nicholas tenants for the last six months as they developed the plan. A formal public presentation, which is required to gain federal approval of the plan to cede public housing authority land to the DOE, is set for Wednesday.

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