The Black Spectrum Theatre, located in Roy Wilkins Park in Jamaica, is seeking to open a charter school for the performing arts. Planning problems forced the theater to withdraw its initial proposal last year, but it reapplied with the state this month.
In addition to the standard middle school curriculum, the school would offer classes in theater, dance, music, media and set and costume design, according to Carl Clay, the theater’s founder and executive director. The proposal calls for students to initially be housed in pre-made Department of Education-approved mobile modules in the park before moving into the theater’s building after it is expanded.
“A lot of parents have said they think it’s great because it would create a campus-like atmosphere,” Clay said.
However, there is a problem with the proposed locations. The city Parks Department said that putting modules in the park or expanding the theater to house a school would be improper use of the land and is prohibited.
“It would not be open to the general public as a recreational amenity, which is what parks are for,” Zachary Feder, a spokesman for the agency, said. “It would take up land that could otherwise be used by the public.”
Clay said he hopes to work with Parks to get the agency to change its mind, but said the group has some ideas for alternate sites, though he did not elaborate on where those would be.
He explained that the impetus for the idea was two-fold. Several Spectrum board members and community members had suggested the idea to him, and the theater also had experience with helping children, providing several successful educational programs at area schools and at the theater itself, Clay said.
The middle school would start with 138 students, increasing to 200 in the second year, 250 in the third and 375 in the fourth, which would be the maximum. It is in the second or third year that Clay said the theater would use the $1 million allocated by state Sen. Shirley Huntley (D-Jamaica) to expand its building, and the school would be moved into its interior after the renovations are completed.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Huntley said. “I think the performing arts is something all young people need to be involved in. It should be part of the whole school experience.”
Adrienne Adams, the chairwoman of Community Board 12’s Education Committee, said the planning board at the theater made a presentation about its proposal back in October and she was very pleased by what she saw and heard.
“I believe it would be another option for the students in District 29,” Adams said Thursday. “It would provide another option and add a much needed dimension of the arts in elementary education. I am all for it.”
Some critics of the plan believe the theater should partner with an existing middle school rather than opening a new one. Adams disagrees.
“I think a standalone performing arts school would be to the betterment of the students and I don’t think they need to partner with another school,” she said. “We should bring arts back into the school system. It should have never left. It was snatched away.”
Huntley expressed similar sentiments adding that the theater has had a long history in the community — it has been in existence for 40 years — worked hard, built up a good reputation with residents and deserves to have its own school.
The theater submitted an application for a charter last year to the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, but it was withdrawn, according to Cynthia Proctor, a spokeswoman for the organization. She said the plan lacked a cohesive element and that there were several issues with parts of the academic curriculum and how it aligned with the proposed budget.
For those reasons the CSI recommended that the plan be reworked and resubmitted rather than moving forward, because in all likelihood it would have been rejected. The theater agreed and withdrew its application.
“The SUNY application process is one of the most rigorous in the country and it is not uncommon to get rejected the first time around,” Proctor said. “The plan has to be detailed and complete to the extent that we can envision a day in the life of a student at that school.”
Proctor said submitting an acceptable “blueprint” can take years because “all the pieces have to fit together,” but added that it is worth the time as demonstrated by the fact that SUNY charter schools are the highest performing in the state.
Clay said the theater has formed a planning panel of 20 people from the community — parents, educators, accountants, public relations specialists and Black Spectrum board members — to assist with the new proposal, which it submitted on Jan. 19, and is confident it will get approved this time around.
“We are looking to put 375 middle school children in an environment that is safe, productive, educational and creatively stimulating,” Clay said to attendees at the Jan. 18 CB 12 meeting. “We don’t want to make it where it’s just talented young people, but young people who are also having issues with fifth grade, so there is an opportunity to change their lives and give them a shot at going to college.”