Friday, December 25, 2009

Florida charter school for students with disabilities finds home in church

From The Miami Herald:

This is the story of the miracle on 34th Street in Allapattah.

At a church that was about to be closed by the Archdiocese of Miami, that miracle will benefit dozens of teenagers who need special attention.

Unlike the classic Christmas movie that takes place on New York City's 34th Street, the gift is not merely a one-day present. ``Providence took misfortune and turned it into salvation for these children,'' said the Rev. José Luis Menéndez of Corpus Christi Catholic Church.

Classic miracles occur in sudden and unexpected ways, but this one was long in the making. In 2005, a group of parents who were concerned about their children's transition from elementary to middle school applied to the Miami-Dade School Board to create a charter school for students with learning disabilities and emotional problems.

Classes would be small so students could receive individual attention. In contrast to the much larger public middle schools, parents said, this would help youngsters develop life skills and educational opportunities that they need.

One of the founders of the charter project is Alexandra Mirabal, whose son Gabriel, now 12, had learning and socialization difficulties.

``He was able to overcome these obstacles with a lot of effort on our part, his parents, and because he attended a public elementary school with an intimate atmosphere,'' Mirabal explained. ``All that progress would have been lost.''

The School Board approved the creation of the River Cities Community Charter School, which would have a maximum of 250 students, for the 2007-08 school year.

The original plan was to house the school at the Miami Springs Baptist Church, where the parents would have had to invest $140,000 to rebuild and adapt the property. But they couldn't raise that much and they couldn't get bank loans. This put off the school's opening for a year.

The parents turned to the Presbyterian church across the street from Miami Springs Baptist, where the existing structure would not have required as large an investment. The charter school amended its contract with the School Board. However, a few months later the Presbyterian church pulled out of the deal, once again leaving the charter school's future in doubt.

The parents tried again. A charter school in Miami Beach had space that it said it would rent out on an interim basis. Finally, in August 2008, River Cities opened its doors with 25 students, all sixth graders.

It got off to a bad start.

``There was a lot of violence. The kids were smoking,'' said Manuel Díaz, 12. ``I felt uncomfortable.''

In the meantime, the parents found what appeared to be the perfect place to become the school's permanent home: a property owned by the Vida Abundante Church, in Northwest Miami, with a 10,000-square-foot auditorium, classrooms, a cafeteria, offices and parking.

The parents went back to the School Board to revise their contract once again.

For the move to take place, the property had to be rezoned, a process that took 10 months. During that time, parents and children donated their time on weekends to clean, paint, decorate and do repairs so they could open the school, finally, in the summer of 2009. They moved donated computers and furniture to the new location.

But three weeks before classes were scheduled to start, their dreams were dashed when county inspectors denied them a certificate of use because the building was deemed unsafe.

``Without a building and out of time, the school seemed to be condemned to close,'' Mirabal said.

At the end of August, the parents, desperate, met with Father Menéndez. They had heard he had rented out space at Corpus Christi to another charter school and hoped he had some additional space.

A month earlier, the archdiocese had put Menéndez in charge of a nearby church that was slated to close because of budget cuts. It was St. Robert Bellarmine Church at Northwest 27th Avenue and 34th Street. What's more, that church had classrooms that had been used for catechism instruction.

On Sept. 3, River Cities received an ultimatum from the School Board: The school had to show, before 3 p.m. the next day, that it had the documentation and permits to use the church property. If it didn't, they charter school's contract could be terminated.

In one day, against all odds, the parents got both the certificate of use and of occupancy at the former St. Robert church, as well as the permits and the insurance to fulfill the School Board's requirements.

The parents believe it was the work of God, a miracle -- a miracle on 34th Street.

Last Friday, the last day of classes before the Christmas break, the students celebrated the holidays. But even in this special atmosphere, some, like Jason Chávez, 13, stayed off by themselves.

``I am usually a loner,'' he said. ``But here they leave me alone and don't make fun of me like at other schools.''

In the biblical story, Joseph and Mary went to register for the census in Bethlehem. They were looking for an inn, and the baby Jesus found a warm place to arrive in this world thanks to the generosity of others.

Today, on 34th Street in Allapattah, history repeats itself. Some children needed refuge, and someone opened a door.