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Despite price tag, a charter school finds perks in private space

By the time Hyde Leadership Charter School expanded into high school grades three years ago, overcrowding at its co-located Department of Education building had become severe. Limited to two floors for over 700 students, classes were held in hallways and high school students complained of filthy conditions in the bathroom they had to share with elementary students.

“It was terrible,” said Dominic Batista, a junior. “It was like a jail.”

Rather than jockey for more space in an increasingly crowded public school system, the growing school took a road less traveled for a charter school in New York City. Keeping its elementary and middle school at P.S. 92, Hyde developed a private facility for its high school just down the road on Hunts Point Avenue in the south Bronx.

Today, the gleaming 30,000 square foot building was on display at an official ribbon-cutting ceremony with elected officials and community members. Inside the auditorium – which splits time as a gymnasium and cafeteria – Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. recalled how prostitutes and arson used to dominate this stretch of Hunts Point Avenue in the South Bronx. Hyde Leadership, he said, was an example of how the area, still the nation’s poorest congressional district, was turning a corner.

The facility was developed and is now managed by Civic Builders, the nonprofit real estate developer for charter schools. The group bought the property in 2010 with lending help from Goldman Sachs and the Low Income Investment Fund.

The price for giving up rent-free public space – about $1 million more per year – was worth it, said Celia Sosa, the school’s director.

“It gives us independence to do what we want,” Sosa said.

She said school officials no longer need to request special city permits to work later hours or on the weekends, something they had to do weekly while sited in DOE space. She also made sure that the school’s design reflected its culture, which stresses character and accountability (students can earn extra credit on top of grades for demonstrating passion in each class). Metal detectors and steel bars are gone. Teachers work in a windowed hallway office so students can always keep tabs on where their teachers are and what they’re doing.

The head of Civic Builders, David Umansky, said Hyde’s new building should be a model as charter schools continue to open in a city where public school space will likely not be as readily available as it has been in the past.

“New York City does not have the school facilities to accomodate the growth of charter schools,” Umansky said.