Sunset Park will be getting a new school this fall.
After years of effort, LEEP Dual Language Academy Charter School has been approved by the New York State Regents to open a charter school — beginning with kindergarten and first grade — in the neighborhood by August of this year.
Founded by Prospect Heights resident Roberto Gutierrez and LEEP Chief Operating Officer Michael Regnier, the goal of the school, whose location hasn’t been revealed yet, is to teach all students to be bilingual by fifth grade.
“The dual language program is really unique to New York City,” Gutierrez continued. “In fact, the rigor and intensity of Spanish language acquisition in kindergarten and first grade has not been done in New York in this way. There are a lot of dual language programs, but we have a very specialized model called the 90/10 model.”
The school had strong neighborhood support, said Gutierrez, who told this paper that the planning included meeting with local leaders to gain information on what was needed in the community.
“All of the information that we got from those meetings and those conversations on the sidewalk on hot summer days led to the creation of the charter application which was submitted to the New York State Board of Education and the Board of Regents.”
Eventually LEEP trustees went before the Board of Regents which, on Nov. 5, voted to authorize the creation of the school.
Finding a space was the next hurdle for LEEP.
“We are on a fast track,” Gutierrez said. “As a charter school. we don’t get automatic space for a school or a DOE building, first and foremost because there are no spaces in Sunset Park. We promised the community and leaders that we would not compete with existing plans for DOE space. We are going to find private space [to lease].”
While Gutierrez said he is bound by the school’s landlord not to reveal the location yet, the announcement could be made soon as the team is close to signing the lease on space for kindergarten through third grade in “the heart of Sunset Park.” This fall, he said, the school will open “with four classrooms in kindergarten and three classrooms in first grade.”
LEEP’s founding principal in Brooklyn is borough native Delines Rodriguez, who was once the instructional school leader for Hola Hoboken Dual Language Charter School, which is in the top 10 percent in the country in the field.
“I met Roberto when he visited Hola,” Rodriguez explained. “I was impressed with him and his vision for his school. Two years later, when I found out he was opening a school here in Brooklyn, we connected and I applied for the position.”
Rodriguez, who grew up in the Sheepshead Bay area, believes her experience in the borough will make her an ideal fit for the new school.
“I went to public school here so I know the experience first hand of growing up in this city in our Latino community,” she said. “I know what it is to be a child whose family speaks Spanish at home and then you’re introduced into the school system and you’re acquiring English. To be able to lead a school where I grew up, and feel like I’m making an impact, is important to me.”
She also stressed the importance of Latino students feeling a sense of pride and ownership in their culture, identity and language.
“Many times, in the traditional public school system, it’s all about acquiring the English language. Really, it’s important for us to create a culture where there is pride in one’s home language and culture,” Rodriguez said.
That said, she stressed, “I think that this is a school not just for Latino students. It’s a school for all students. Sunset Park is very diverse and District 15 serves many students from all over the world. For our other students, being able to learn a second language is invaluable. I think being bilingual is extremely important and will give our students an advantage in school and life as they grow up and become productive citizens.”
The school is currently in the middle of hiring teachers.
“They are going to come with varying experience from all over Latin America,” Gutierrez said.
“We are going to have teachers from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Chile, Mexico. The goal is to try to provide an international experience for children to be able to learn Spanish how it is spoken in those countries. It’s a great opportunity.”
In the beginning, according to Gutierrez, the school will only have room for 153 students. The school is currently in the enrollment phase and spaces are getting it filled quickly, said Gutierrez, who stressed that applications can be filled out on the school’s website.
For more information, visit www.leepacademies.org.