By Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The Harlem Children's Zone and the New York City Housing Authority broke ground Wednesday on a $100 million charter school in the center of St. Nicholas Houses that officials say will serve as a national model for reviving impoverished neighborhoods.
"The model we are trying to create is something that will represent a way of working not just in New York City but around the country. I really, honestly believe it is one of the most important things going on in America right now," said Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of Harlem Children's Zone.
He who was joined by officials including U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary Shaun Donovan, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Cathie Black.
The school, Promise Academy I, will house 1,300 students in grades K through 12 and will open in the fall of 2012. The 135,000-square-foot school represents "a bright new future for St. Nicholas Houses," said Bloomberg.
Children there would gain automatic acceptance into the school. Roughly 33 kids from St. Nicholas Houses have already been accepted into the school.
The city contributed $60 million to build the school and Harlem Children's Zone raised the rest, including a $20 million gift from the philanthropic arm of Goldman Sachs. Canada has been hailed around the country for his efforts at providing wrap-a-round services for children and their parents, starting with education. President Obama has modeled his anti-poverty program "Promise Neighborhoods" after the program at Harlem Children's Zone.
But the project was not without controversy. A group called Citizens for the Preservation of St. Nicholas Houses collected more than 700 signatures from residents who oppose the project because they are concerned about the loss of open space and the conversion of a cul-de-sac on 129th Street into a through street.
"The issue is green space. There is no fair exchange for our open space," Danzy said.
Rufus Shaw, who protested with Danzy, is a lifelong resident of St. Nicholas Houses. The retired Board of Education worker, who has a master's in education, said no one was opposed to children having greater educational opportunities.
"This not about education, but about putting a building in a middle of a complex that will block out the light and open space," Shaw said.
Community Board 10 also voted against opening the school and expressed their disapproval that NYCHA was not required to seek community approval for the development project. Others issued proposals for the school to be smaller and for the cul-de-sac to remain in place.
Canada, said he understood that residents were "skeptical" and "suspicious."
"They don't really believe this is for them and it's not until they actually experience their kids being in here and us providing services to this community that they will understand this is not lip service," Canada said. "I'll stand on my record for delivering for my community. We are going to deliver a great education for these kids."
Willie Mae Lewis, president of the St. Nicholas Houses Residents' Association, said the project is important to the success of children of the community.
"We are looking forward to our children having this opportunity because education is key," she said. "It's not about us, it's about the children."