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Charter School Group Looks to Expand into Western Queens

By Katie Honan | January 6, 2016 8:22am | Updated on January 11, 2016 8:06am

JACKSON HEIGHTS — A new charter school looking to open in western Queens in 2017 is searching for space — in an area already struggling to find room for existing students.

Graham Browne, 30, graduated as a fellow with the charter school organization Building Excellent Schools this summer and is spearheading a plan to open the Forte Preparatory Academy, a college prep middle school.

He's eyeing spaces in Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and Corona in a bid to figure out where he can put the school — a task made more difficult by the fact that Districts 24 and 30 are the most overcrowded in the city.

"The hardest part with anything in New York is identifying physical space," he said. "We're committed to thinking creatively on space."

There are Building Excellent Schools throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. Forte Prep would be the first to open in Queens.

Browne's goal is to open in the fall of 2017 with 90 fifth graders, adding a grade per year until they create an eighth grade class.

He began outreach late last year, canvassing the neighborhood and meeting with local officials and as many parents as possible, he said. 

"Our goal is to have a school that fully reflects the great diversity this community has to offer," he said. "Our outreach has to be just as broad."

Browne graduated from the Yale School of Management with a focus on non-profits and education, after working at education consulting firms.

Building Excellent Schools charter network, a Boston-based nonprofit that trains and provides support to entrepreneurs and educators, has spawned 101 schools in 25 cities — a number that is expected to grow to 127 schools in 30 cities by 2017, its site says.

At an information session at the Jackson Heights library Tuesday night, Browne handed out fliers in multiple languages to parents interested in learning more about the school.

He chose the name because it brings to mind strength and expertise, and the school's goal is preparing middle school students for college. 

Outside Tuesday night's meeting, several parents from Jackson Heights' People for Public Schools handed out fliers opposing  charter schools.

Amanda Vender, who has two children in elementary school, said she and other parents don't see a need for charter schools.

"What we need is more money for our public schools," she said. 

"Our schools in Jackson Heights are quite good and we want to support them and make them even better."

Browne said he'd like to continue having conversations throughout western Queens with parents, and he's included a survey on his school's site to learn more about the community's needs.

"We're all in this together, and it's really critical to think of public education as an ecosystem with lots of different players working towards the same goal," he said.

"It's my goal to have as many conversations as possible."