Sunset Park

Latino-oriented nonprofit seeks to bring dual-language charter school to Sunset Park

July 30, 2018 By Jaime DeJesus Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A LEEP student from Sunset Park. Photo courtesy of LEEP

Trying to get Sunset Park to the head of the class, the non-profit organization LEEP (Latino Education Equity Partnership) is currently pushing to bring a dual language public charter school to Sunset Park by fall 2019.

“Public charter schools are making huge differences in local communities and particularly communities of color, where we could have more direct participation of the areas, contended Roberto Gutierrez, a Prospect Heights resident who has lived in Brooklyn since 2005. He founded LEEP and is its executive director.

“We want to create a school where every child is a language learner,” said LEEP Chief Operating Officer Michael Regnier, who served as director of policy and research at the New York City Charter School Center for more than five years. “Whether they’re learning English or Spanish for the first time, that creates a unique kind of a community, and Sunset Park is a great place to facilitate that.

“We know that Sunset needs more seats,” he went on. “There are pretty overcrowded classrooms in schools, which has parents very concerned, and we will be opening this school in an independent building. We won’t be trying to fit into an existing school building. We want to alleviate the overcrowding rather than adding to it.”

The group plans to begin with kindergarten and first grade, expanding eventually to eighth grade.

For Gutierrez, learning both Spanish and English is a key goal. “Research shows that kids that learn in multiple languages at the earliest stages of their life actually do much better in reading comprehension. They become better readers and communicators,” he said, citing his personal experience. “My mother was from south Texas and my father was from Mexico. Even though we learned English at school, at home I had to speak Spanish, thankfully so. My father said when you get home, you speak Spanish right. So we spoke Spanish correctly for the purposes of making sure we could communicate with our aunts, uncles and grandparents.”

“The concern you sometimes hear is that by speaking Spanish, students will be less skilled in English, but what the research is showing is that when you’re immersed in language and thinking in multiple languages, you actually become better at communicating, aware of your own thinking,” added Regnier. “Because of that, really well-run dual language schools across the country create graduates who speak two languages really well instead of neither language very well.”

LEEP has already begun outreach to the community, to find out what its main priorities should be.

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“Our first step is to ask for input from the community, and to ask for interest and support from families in Sunset Park and across Community School District 15,” Regnier said. “It’s been going really well. We’ve enjoyed hearing families’ stories and reaction, and answering questions Sunset residents have. We want to know what families care about most and what they prioritize as a need for a new school in the area.”

“Latino families are saying we want our kids to learn English really well, but we don’t want them to forget their Spanish or who they are,” added Gutierrez. “We’re trying to make speaking Spanish a matter of pride. What can we do to affirm that, build on that and use it as a way to accelerate learning for kids and also maintain that language over time?”

LEEP received early funding the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Gutierrez said. “That allowed us to do our first national strategic plan. We studied actual charter schools that were functioning around the country and doing this work, and we put that into a business plan.”

According to Regnier, LEEP — which will apply for a charter the New York State Board of Regents — has been working with a real estate broker and identified five possible locations.

“Our hope is that the Regents will vote on a proposal this November, which would mean we would be opening the school in August, 2019,” said Regnier, acknowledging that the process is difficult.

“New York has strict requirements for charter schools looking to open and it should,” he went on. “It requires us to think very carefully about every single element in how this school is going to be run because we’re asking to be entrusted with children and tax dollars, and it’s important that we have everything tightly planned and we have a talented team to run the school. It’s a high bar but we’re trying very hard to meet it.”

LEEP representatives will appear before Community Board 7 at its Education and Youth Committee meeting on Wednesday, August 8.

For more information on LEEP, visit www.leepacademies.org.

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