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.
“I am an educator and I worked in the public school system. So did our entire founding team,” said co-founder of Finn Academy Charter School, Maggie Thurber. Finn Academy is scheduled to open its doors this August and will be the Southern Tier’s very first charter school.
“In our region, since 2012, we have been dealing with a lot of consolidation of schools. A few years ago, I was a school administrator in the public school system and I had to deliver letters to a group of amazing educators telling them they were losing their jobs. They had to be let go. 126 teachers in total lost their jobs.”
She went on, “The conversations that ensued were devastating. We had teachers who had just lost their jobs asking, ‘What is going to happen to Dylan, or little Kwame, or Olivia?’ These conversations had real children’s names on them.”
These conversations are what led Thurber and others to look into founding a charter school. “It became a conversation that galvanized our community about what matters in education,” she said.
Through grit and hard work, Finn Academy was approved to open in 2015 with 180 students in grades K-3 in the first year. Throughout its charter, the school will grow to grades K-7.
These educators did not want to lose sight of their children, their students. “We’re in this because we want to change outcomes for children.”
Thurber cites some sobering statistics about Elmira’s schools. The city ranks 419 of 432 upstate school districts, according to the Buffalo Business Journal.
Thurber said Elmira consistently ranks at the bottom when it comes to outcomes. She said that graduation rates there are about 62% and that for students with disabilities, the graduation rate is in the 31% range. For economically disadvantaged, the rate is 52%. She said parents get the need for more school options in Elmira.
Thurber and her co-founders are now well-versed in the challenges that charter schools face in finding adequate space and paying for it. Since charter schools outside New York City are all in private space, they are all denied state facilities funding. This, even though Finn Academy is a public school and the students who will attend are public school students.
Thurber talks about beautiful school buildings that are no longer in use, but because Finn doesn’t receive any state aid for buildings, these spaces were not an option. The school district did not want to lease the space, only sell it – at full market value, which the school simply can’t afford.
“Those facilities can’t be rehabbed for any less than somewhere in the range of $6 -$11 million dollars. We’d have to meet ADA enhancements, get new windows, and make repairs. We don’t have that kind of money.”
“We have explored every single space that we could in the county. It’s a unique situation – but from these challenges great solutions can emerge.”
The school finally has a home – and that location will be announced soon. “We have a space now. It’s phenomenal but requires some adjustments and an addition. We will be making an announcement soon. We’re very excited.”
Thurber and her co-founders and board are looking forward to taking on this incredible challenge, but they’re aware that a change in state law would really benefit them. They are hoping that the state levels the playing field for all charter schools this year so that schools outside of New York City are afforded building aid or space in district schools.
“If there were co-location options, we would have been able to make some of the empty school buildings work for us. If Elmira was set up the way things are in New York City, we could make co-location work.” Alternatively, if charters received the same building aid as their host districts – in Elmira 89% - facilities rehabilitation would be within reach.
But waiting was never in the cards. “The option is not ‘don’t do it’ or ‘wait to do it when it is easier’”, she said. “It’ll never be easier.”
And the families in Elmira can’t wait.
Stay tuned for Finn Academy’s announcement!
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