New HS Opening At Stella Maris Site
Starting just after Labor Day, Martin De Porres High School, a private not-for-profit special education school, will be relocating from Rosedale, Queens to the former Stella Maris High School building in Rockaway Park.
After Stella Maris High School closed in June of 2010, the Sisters of St. Joseph rented the building to the Peninsula Preparatory Academy charter school.
Since the New York City Department of Education has ordered PPA to close its doors, the city has refused to pay the rent and the school has vacated the property, opening the doors for Martin De Porres to take over the building. The length of the lease is unknown.
The principal of the new school, Jo’Anne Brancato, walked a Wave reporter through the school this week, where volunteers could be seen working around the clock to make sure the school is ready.
According to the principal, the majority of the students will be brought in by school bus from all over the city.
The school is a New York State certified regent’s diploma high school and will house around 250 students with more than 120 faculty members.
New York State has listed Martin De Porres as a special education school that serves students with emotional disturbances, multiple physical disabilities and intellectual disabilities.
Martin De Porres was founded in 1972 by a handful of Lasallian Brothers who wanted to form a school for students with special needs. At that time, the school was in Astoria, Queens. The principal says, however, that it is not a Catholic school and does not teach religious education classes in the curriculum.
Martin De Porres serves elementary and middle school kids as well throughout Queens.
While some students entering the high school have been in the Martin De Porres system since childhood, others are referred to the school by the New York City Department of Education because the city feels they can longer be served by the public school system. Since it is private, no child is forced to go there, but many of the students do well in the program, school officials say.
“Here, the school fits the kid because everything is individualized. Our students go on to do great things. Many of our students have been with us since they were kids within the Martin De Porres school system,” Brancato says.
The school, she continues, has a waiting list for admission and offers programs in automotive, horticulture, child care certification, graphic design and their most popular program, culinary arts.
The director of academics, Brancato’s husband, Frank, says everyone at the school truly cares about these kids.
“All these people here today,” Frank said pointing around the school at the workers. “They are our faculty and staff. They care about the kids here. They are not being paid. They are here helping out to get this school ready.”
The couple has more than 35 years experience teaching. Frank was a teacher at Bishop Ford High School in Brooklyn and JoAnne has spent time both at Martin De Porres and LaSalle High School.
A handful of area residents, however, remain skeptical about the intentions of Martin De Porres.
With Rockaway’s long history of being a dumping ground for SROs, halfway houses, adult homes and other social programs and with one facility for troubled youth already a few blocks away at the St. John’s Residence for Boys, the subject of perception is a tough one to ignore when dealing with a special needs high school of any sort.
As a private not-for-profit receiving state funding, the school did not need local clearance to lease the property from the owners, the Sisters of St. Joseph. Community leaders say, however, that they would have appreciated some notification about what was coming to Rockaway.
Neither the Community Board, nor elected officials nor local civic associations were made aware of the school’s presence. Occupancy inside a property as big as Stella Maris High School can change the entire character of a neighborhood, which is why Assemblymember Phillip Goldfeder didn’t understand the lack of outreach.
In a letter sent this week to Martin De Porres Executive Director Ed Dana, he expressed his concern about the lack of communication.
“I am greatly concerned and disappointed that the local community was not consulted in the decision to move to Rockaway Park. While I respect the work of Martin De Porres to fulfill Lasallian principles such as educating the troubled, poor and disadvantaged, I also know that community inclusion and respect is an important part of your mission. In this case, the community must be heard,” Goldfeder wrote in the letter.
“Rockaway residents deserve the opportunity to be involved in the planning of a project that could dramatically affect their quality of life. I would ask that you immediately schedule a public forum to explain your intentions to our community and begin a dialogue, allowing residents to share their concerns.”
After being made aware of the letter that Goldfeder wrote to Martin De Porres, Brancato insisted that she wants to work with the community and not against it. She says she is willing to host an open forum where school officials can present the community with a well-detailed picture of its role in Rockaway.
Prior to 2001, Martin De Porres only taught students up to the eighth grade. Since 2001 the school has added a high school component which has moved several times. It originally started in Springfield Gardens before moving to Park Slope and eventually to Rosedale. Stella Maris, however, provides a setting that is ideal for what they are trying to do.
“This is a real school building,” Frank said. “We can do many things here that we weren’t capable of in our past locations.”
The couple understands the community’s concerns and says they are disappointed to hear that some people in the community have chosen to judge them based on perception rather than reality, without really understanding the school’s point of view.
“Where’s the trust from the Sisters of St. Joseph, who have been in this community for years,” Frank said. “Everyone is judging us before we even open our doors.”
Danny Ruscillo, the president of the 100 Precinct Community Council and Community Board 14 member has been a community leader in decrying the fact that a special education school would be placed in a struggling community without notification or discussion. “If you don’t say anything to the community,” Ruscillo said. “It makes it seem like you are hiding something. We have been down this road before. They say one thing and then another happens. We will just have to see if they keep their word on holding that public forum.”
A source of Ruscillo’s, whom he would not reveal publicly, described the kids of Martin De Porres as “the worst of the worst.” Time will tell if that’s really the case.