The 30 Schools in 30 Days project will highlight a different New York State charter school each day, featuring each school's successes, and the challenges that come from being denied access to state facilities funding. Perhaps most important, each school leader has a message for state lawmakers in Albany: please find a solution to the facilities funding problem and allow ALL of the state's charter schools access to building aid this year.
The founder of Amani Charter School in Mount Vernon, Debra Stern, talks a lot about miracles. She says it was a miracle that she found the brand new school building that will finally house all of the school’s students under one roof. She says it’s a miracle that she has been able to find the funding to make ends meet for her students.
And while maybe she’s right, the more likely scenario is that Debra Stern has worked tooth and nail to provide for these kids. And her hard work has been paying off.
Amani Charter School exists because Debra and her husband, Charles Stern, realized that there is a wide achievement gap in Mount Vernon and that it becomes even more persistent in the middle and high school years. As parents of kids in the district, they were involved in the PTA and saw the schools’ problems firsthand.
“By the time some kids reach fourth grade, their parents either leave the district, pay tuition to attend public schools in neighboring districts, or try to get their kids into private schools because the district schools are failing,” said Stern. “We wanted to make a change internally, within the district. We had been hearing a lot about charter schools and there was a huge need here. So we decided to go for it.”
Amani opened in 2011. The school serves students in grades 5-8 and 99% of them are black students. A large majority – nearly 80% - of the school’s population is free and reduced lunch.
The need for this school becomes increasingly apparent when the lottery happens.
“This means something to the community. You see it when you see parents crying when their children don’t get in. You realize how much people really do want Amani here,” she said.
“Once they’re here, students don’t leave our school until they graduate. We have a growing waitlist for only a handful of seats each year.”
None of this could happen, though, if Debra didn’t act as both a social worker and a real estate agent. She says she looks at running Amani as though she’s running a small non-profit. To make ends meet, she worked for nothing for the first year.
Debra Stern and Amani Charter School student
“I didn’t take a salary for awhile. That way we could put most of the money right into the school. Also, because the school district refused to pay charter school tuition for at least two years while suing the state education department to close Amani, there were instances when Charlie and I had to consider writing a personal check to cover pay roll. It may sound crazy, but I wanted to make a difference in the community.”
Financial struggles aside, Debra had been working tirelessly to find the right building for her students. Amani just celebrated its ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new school building on January 5 of this year.
See more pictures from the ceremony here
And while this is a time of celebration for the school, they still have to be very creative with their finances. Amani does not receive any state facilities funding and roughly 1/5 of the school’s budget is spent on the building and its expenses.
“If we want to make this school special for our kids – and I am talking about sports, arts and things like that – we have to rigorously fundraise. I am thankful for state stimulus funds; we wouldn’t be here without those. But not everyone has the time or energy to do this and to spend this much effort just looking for the building to house the students. But you see how critical this is to the kids. And that makes it worth it.”
Her message to lawmakers is: “We need a solution. Suburban charter schools need greater support with facilities financing. Without one, we’re setting our kids up for failure. It should not take a miracle to set our students up for success. It should not take a miracle to educate our kids.”
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