A new charter school broke ground in Queens’ most crowded public school district on Monday.
The Elm Community Charter School was started in 2016 by Queens native Priscilla Walton, who took a major step toward turning the property at 79-20 Queens Blvd., formerly a tire shop, into a four-story school building that will be able to house 450 students.
She was able to do so with the backing of the Liberty One Group, a real estate developer that is among the city’s top private homeless shelter owners, an analysis by The Real Deal found.
Walton came up with the idea for the school with a number of Elmhurst parents in 2015, and launched a year later. Since then she’s been looking for a building of her own for the program, which currently serves around 230 students with 30 staff.
Walton, the school’s principal, said she wanted to tailor an elementary school to immigrant communities in Elmhurst and Corona in part because of the overcrowding that she experienced growing up in the area. A 2018 Department of Education report found District 24 to be the most overcrowded one in the borough, and third-most crowded in the city.
The school has been co-located at a Flushing private school since its inception, a district over from Elmhurst and Corona. Walton said that it wasn’t ideal, but she didn’t have many options since public space is so scarce in the area.
“It really was a huge risk that families took on us. The founding families signed on and registered to our school without an address. Then we gave them an address that wasn’t close to them in Corona, but they came anyway,” Walton said.
Nayla Ochoa, a Corona resident whose son Gabriel has been a student since first grade, said that she opted for the charter school because she was looking for something outside public school. The school started with a cohort of kindergarteners and has been adding a grade every year since its founding. By July 2022, when it’s slated to move into the new building, it will have its first cohort of fifth-graders.
In Liberty One, the owner of the property that is paying for the construction of the building, Walton found a partner that would help her follow her vision of setting up the school in the neighborhood she originally envisioned.
“Liberty One is literally being the most generous and gracious hosts and investing the up-front costs to make this happen,” said Walton.
But when the plans were first announced, they made news based on their proximity to the Boulevard Family Resilience homeless shelter at the former Pan American hotel, which drew community protests when it was announced in 2014.
Both the school site and the shelter share an owner, Liberty One affiliate David “Diddy” Levitan, who bought the site for the school with several other neighboring properties in April 2014, months after he bought the hotel site for $23 million, according to the Jackson Heights Post.
But community leaders say that the charter school fills a desperate need in the area.
“You can imagine the types of hardships that immigrants face. There was such a need for new schools and such a need for people like Priscilla who is willing lead a team and start a local institution that would focus on immigrant kids,” said Redd Sevilla, a community board member who has worked for religious community service organizations in the neighborhood.