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.
“Diversity brings such a richness of culture to our school and our faculty. We revel in that.”
This is what Amber Charter School Executive Director Vasthi Acosta says when talking about the mix of ethnicities and cultures that her school serves. Located in Harlem, Amber was founded in 2000 and is among the state’s oldest charter schools. The school was the first Latino-led charter in the state and arose out of a community need for a great school.
The vast majority of the school’s students are Latino and black, with a growing immigrant population, with children from China, Mexico and other Central American nations. These are the school’s ELL students as they come from non-English speaking homes. Additionally, all students learn Spanish as a second language from kindergarten until they graduate in fifth grade.
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Amber in the fall of 2014
Acosta says the parents she works with have a real appreciation for what the school is doing, calling the parents her “champions of education.”
But Amber’s teachers and staff deal with all the challenges that arise when serving children in poverty, some coming from what Acosta called “crisis mode”. She says some of the children live in very stressful home environments so the school does everything it can do ensure Amber is a safe, consistent, and nurturing environment.
“Leave your worries behind,” Acosta says to her students when they enter the doors of the school.
She and her staff have been able to do that and their students shine. They outscore their peers in nearby district schools in both math and ELA tests. The school touts the fact that this year, 100% of their students scored 100% proficient in the New York State science test. And demand is high – each year more than 700 students apply for just 110 seats.
Something else that makes Amber unique is that it is a unionized charter school, with a special contract with the UFT. In fact, Amber has been unionized since its inception.
“It’s a very simplified contact and one that works well for us. In 15 years, we have only had one grievance. We take great pride in that.”
Amber owns its own school building and pays the mortgage on it and everything else that comes with owning a 114 year-old building. That is because the school is denied state facilities funding. So their expenses include repairs on the building, cleaning services, plumbing, energy - you name it.
“None of that has anything to do with educating children inside the classroom,” said Acosta.
Acosta talks about the “magic that happens in the classroom” and she wants to be able to provide even more for her students. She wants Amber to provide free after-school programs, be able to offer summer school to all grades (it’s currently only offered to one grade), employ more than one special education teacher, and offer more staff development for teachers.
These are all things that Acosta said she could do if it wasn’t for the crushing expenses that come with paying for a school building for 500 children.
Her message to state lawmakers: “The future of education is in offering parents choice. We must all recognize that charters are part of the menu of options that parents should get. Charter schools are public schools and therefore should receive equal funding.”
Amber Charter School's Vasthi Acosta spoke at a Classroom Without Walls, which dramatized the need for facilities funding for charter schools located in private space
Executive Director Vasthi Acosta joins Urban Dove's Jai Nanda and NECSN's Kyle Rosenkrans on NY1's Inside City Hall to discuss the future of charter schools
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