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Instruction is key to new charter school’s construction effort

To learn more about what’s in each photograph, click to read the caption.

When Ife Lenard and her crew first entered the third-floor classrooms that will house the Children’s Aid Society Charter School this fall, they found a dusty rotary phone, a decades-old beer can, and lockers coated with grime from years of middle-schoolers’ use.

But Lenard, the founding principal, can already envision how the classrooms — now gutted — will look come September, when the school opens to 130 kindergarten and first-graders in a South Bronx public school building.

That vision includes lots of floor rugs and tables for small-group activities, computer stations, fall colors such as “squash yellow,” a terrarium, and an aquarium, Lenard said as she led a procession of Children’s Aid Society officials, clad in bright orange hard hats, including director Richard Buery, on a walking tour of the school earlier this week.

But the vision also requires some big changes, including rewiring classrooms and demolishing a wall that separates two rooms.

Lenard has overseen the fledgling charter school’s $130,000 construction process since June, when the building’s two other schools, I.S. 318 and P.S. 211, ceded half of the third floor. The renovations, which the Children’s Aid Society is paying for, have allowed her to add interior decorator to the many roles she has taken on since she was named principal in late March and began hiring teachers and recruiting families.

I.S. 318 and P.S. 211 will also get to make some changes because of their new neighbor. When legislators agreed to increase the number of charter schools in 2010, they also forced the city to match costly repairs in charter schools with ones in co-located district schools. That means that every dollar spent on the Children’s Aid Society space — even if it doesn’t come from the city — means another dollar for each of the two other schools in the building.

Some schools see the extra facilities funding as a small tradeoff for the loss of classroom space. In this case, P.S. 211 and I.S. 318 students will still use a science lab and library on the third floor, but I.S. 318 will lose a room that housed a once-competitive robotics team. (The team has only competed once since 2007, when a successful coach left. Attempts to reach the school and the current robotics coach were not successful this week.)

Children’s Aid, a venerated social services agency, has been running after-school programs and offering health and social services inside city schools for more than two decades, including at P.S. 211. But the charter school will be its first foray into school management. Its founders want the school to embody the burgeoning educational philosophy that says students cannot be fully successful in school if their social, emotional, and health needs are not being met outside of school.

Buery said the school’s location, just north of Morrisania and Crotona Park, is an ideal starting point for this effort because of its proximity to other Children’s Aid facilities.

“We are within a stone’s throw from so many of our other services: our community school partnerships, our foster care center,” he said as he surveyed the school playground and garden from a third-floor window on Monday. “It’s also about deepening our investment in this community. It will hopefully make us a better neighbor and make the communtiy stronger.”

Though new principals typically enter a school that is already fully constructed, Lenard said she was eager to take on the extra tasks of creating the school from scratch alongside Alex Jerez, the director of operations. Those tasks have including petitioning the city to allow her crew to tear down a dividing drywall and orchestrating the replacement of an aging sink in the men’s bathroom.

“I come every two days to check on things; Alex is here every day,” she said. “I just want the kids to have appropriate space. The environment will shape the instructional programs.”

Much of Lenard’s instructional vision depends on having each room just so, she said. For example, she plans to break up one room into sections using modular tables.

“We’ll put it in the middle of the floor so we can also use it in small groups,” she said. “That’s a huge advantage. You have to have space to do it if you’re going to tell the teacher to break them up into groups.”