New charter school to open in 2019

An architect’s illustration of the new Neighborhood Charter School, which will be located on Wales Ave.

Children with autism will be a key focus

The site of a former chemical factory nestled between storage facilities and residential homes in Mott Haven is primed to become a new charter school that will specialize in educating children with autism.

Renovations are scheduled to be finished on the building at 411 Wales Ave. by Aug. 2019, when it is slated to open as the second school in the Neighborhood Charter School network. The first opened in 2012 in Harlem.

“One of the things we’re big on is not just depositing ourselves into a community,” said Brett Gallini, the school network’s executive director and founding principal of NCS. “We really want to make sure that people know that we’re coming and that we’re an option for families. That’s what the charter movement is about.” 

Statistics kept by the nonprofit group Autism Speaks show that 1 in 59 children nationwide become diagnosed as being “on the spectrum” of autism. The new school will offer an Autism Spectrum Disorder program for students who are on the spectrum.

“Part of our expansion was just the tracking and the need for a program like this that’s available academically, socially, and emotionally for the community,” said Sogol Schfiei, the school’s supervising speech language pathologist. 

“Lots of parents in the South Bronx are struggling to get support for children with autism in speech and physical therapy,” said Kayla Martin, pediatrics department program manager at BronxCare, which also hosts a monthly support group for parents of children with autism. “It’s a good thing Neighborhood Charter is coming to the Bronx. They should build more schools,” she said. 

The influx of charter schools in the South Bronx has met with mixed opinions. Some welcome charters for their smaller classes and extra attention. Others, however, see them as resource-hungry invaders that take precious space away from public school buildings. But Mott Haven residents have no reason to fear this newcomer, according to Gallini.

“I think the biggest controversy areas in the charter argument is around co-location and students with special needs,” said Gallini. “We don’t fall into either one of those categories.” 

There are 15 charter elementary schools in CommunitySchool District 7, which includes Mott Haven, Melrose and Port Morris.

Some recent headlines have focused on parents’ and advocates’ complaints against charter schools for their treatment of special needs children, but some advocacy groups, parents, and communities have also been critical of charter schools for falsely advertising success rates and for racial inequality. 

A developer is building the new school’s standalone campus, backed by a 45-year lease on the space. Along with paying the rent, NCS will be responsible for paying for services, including security, electricity and elevators. “We do get an allocation per pupil to help with rental assistance, but it doesn’t come close to paying all the bills that we have to pay,” said Gallini. Academically, the new school will foster the same inclusive environment with a curriculum that will include a heavy dose of science and the arts, he said. 

Bronx resident Nancy Hernandez has had children in the Harlem NCS since it opened in 2012. Her two boys, in 6th and 7th grade, commute between the Bronx and the Harlem campus. One of them has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Hernandez says she is ecstatic that NCS is expanding into her borough. 

“It’s a wonderful school. It sets students up for success. Parents with children on the spectrum feel confident, secure and supported here,” said Hernandez. 

NCS Bronx will open with 170 children in kindergarten and 1st grade, and will add grades a year at a time, to be capped off at 8th grade (in 2026). Applications to attend the local campus are currently being accepted and a lottery will take place in April 2019. Students on the spectrum will have additional steps in the application process, such as providing medical and prior educational history.