Two back-to-back protests are indicative of the growing tensions at the site of a proposed charter middle school.
International Leadership Charter High School has had enough. After its groundbreaking last year for its new seven-story middle school with the expectation of 400 students, the administration and its partners were proud of their accomplishments.
On Wednesday, May 10, nearly 100 members joined together to rally in support of the right to build the expansion of the high school to a middle school at 306 W. 232nd St. It was in response to the complaints raised by organizers of an April rally led by elected officials.
Participants at the May 10 rally organized by Parents United for the International charter school and the Black, Latinx, and Asian Charter Collaborative
Included five students from Capitol Preparatory School and parents.
“I think it was better than we expected, there was no telling what the turnout was going to be,” said Elaine Ruiz-López, chief executive and founder of the school.
After receiving her doctorate of education and working in the field since the 1980s, the Bronx native, Ruiz-López, built her high school from the ground up.
During the rally, she expressed that only one International charter school existed. “We have the right to expand to a middle school, and we are going to pursue that right vigorously,” she said.
The middle school will focus on STEAM, which includes robotics and coding. Through the curriculum they hope to increase test scores.
Residents felt differently.
Stop the Charter School campaign was created by a group of community members aimed at the construction of the middle school, claiming their complaints have nothing to do with education. The community cited issues with potential traffic and environmental impacts. That group hosted its rally May 13.
Known as “Miss NYU,” Jacquiesy Paulino, a senior, was accepted to the university with a full ride. She is going in as undeclared — but has a strong interest in education.
“I applied to 20 schools” and got accepted to “all of them — it was a blessing,” Paulino said. “I feel like building the school would actually help boost up the community, and it will allow more students of color.”
Tuku Gaye was accepted to Howard University and will study pre-law. She was accepted to Syracuse University.
“We are always standing together and this (rally) is a prime example,” Gaye said. “If we’re all together in high school — imagine having a middle school transforming into that environment. It can only benefit the community.”
Ruiz-López said it was time to give the same opportunity to middle school students. She continued to explain that the middle school was legally approved and had the right to be built.
An application was sent to the city for a seven-story building back in April 2022 by Panstar Realty, a limited liability corporation registered agent at 275 W. 232st St. It purchased the property in September 2020 for $1.19 million, according to city property records.
The charter school signed a long-term lease of 30 years for the property, representatives told The Riverdale Press last year. Not only is real estate at a premium, the choice of location was a strategic move for Ruiz-López to be as close as possible to her high school.
The city buildings department approved all permits months before, Ruiz-López said.
Meanwhile, the stormwater permit from the environmental protection department was not needed. The agency requires applicants to construct greater or equal to 20,000 square feet or create 5,000 square feet or more of impervious surface. The square footage of the site was 4,999.
The associate engineer, Alex Chen, from All City Engineering, was trying to confirm if the permit would be waived since it is under its threshold, according to an email chain with the environmental protection agency.
“The one-square foot difference is a little too close to call on that factor alone for stating that a permit is not required,” according to one of the statements in the emails.
But through engineering documentation, the approval affirms that pretreatment plans conform to the accepted practices in wastewater treatment, the approval letter stated.
Also, the school is getting help from the Walton Family Foundation with approvals from SUNY Charter School Institute in Albany.
Ruiz-López expressed her connection with the residents is not needed. And her meeting with Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz was out of “professional courtesy.”
The Assemblyman has lost the founder’s support and, from what it seems, the school’s community, too. Some 97 percent of International Leadership students are from the same neighborhood where the assemblyman is their representative.
“Not in my backyard has no place in the Bronx — our students are our future,” Ruiz-López said. “Our students come from the Bronx.”
Chanting “students first,” “we are the change,” and more while marching from the high school campus on 3030 Riverdale Ave., demonstrators took a stroll to the assemblyman’s office near Amber Charter School. Then they headed to the construction site before returning to their campus over one hour later.
Although the assemblyman was in Albany, his local office heard them loud and clear.
“I’m sorry I missed them; I would have loved to have the opportunity to speak with the people there,” the assemblyman said. “But I was not offered the opportunity since they did not let us know they were coming.”
In a separate statement following the May 10 rally, he took a shot at the school’s administration.
“It is very concerning that the students at the high school were taken out of school during the school day to participate in a political demonstration, when they presumably would have been better off in their classrooms,” he said.
Their visit was in response to the assemblyman, who “pitted the neighborhood against the charter school” in what Ruiz-López calls “political theater.”
“Heckling ‘this is not your community’ (stop the charter school campaign) that’s unfortunate they’re saying it, we’re creating a school, not a prison,” she continued.
From Dinowitz’s point of view, he said he has nothing against International Leadership.
He is pleased the students are doing well. His issues are focused on traffic and possible damages to the environment.
In March, the assemblyman, along with his colleagues, councilman Eric Dinowitz and state Sen. Robert Jackson wrote a letter to the city’s transportation department, state education department, and SUNY Charter School Institute to ensure public money is being funded appropriately.
“What they did not do was respond to the questions raised by a large number of people in the community,” Dinowitz said in a statement.
Corlear Gardens, which is adjacent to the construction site, has blamed the school for flooding in its building because Tibbets Brook, which runs underneath the property has been disturbed.
In the nearby Tibbett Towers parking lot residents claim construction has caused cracks there that has prohibited cars from parking, a Tibbett Tower resident says.
The school has faced more than political challenges. Vandalism seems to go unchecked.
The school was expected to open for the 2023-24 academic year, as stated on their website, where they are accepting applications. But the school cannot be built over the summer. The delays are caused by the vandalism and temporary stop work orders due to flooding.
“The board of trustees is considering all its options including taking an additional planning year until our permanent home is ready,” the charter school said in a statement. “A final decision has not yet been made. Parent applicants are being updated frequently on our progress.”
The Rev. Raymond River, who is bishop of Latino Pastoral Action Center and founder of a network of charter schools, was one of the speakers supporting the charter school.
“I’m here to say that we shouldn’t be here denouncing the people that are trying to stop this construction. You should be celebrating, you should be celebrating; I’m going to end with this — change is coming,” the bishop said.