Volume 16, Number 28 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 9-16, 2003

An office where students learn from 9 to 5

By Elizabeth O’Brien

The John V. Lindsay Wildcat Charter School keeps a low profile. It’s not widely known that 250 young people attend public high school inside an office building at 17 Battery Pl.

“A high school at 17 Battery?” asked Nancy Sanfilippo, who works in the building for Imperial Commodities Corp. “I had no clue.”

But that doesn’t bother Amalia Betanzos, president and C.E.O. of the Wildcat Service Corporation. Her at-risk students were all identified as likely to fail in their former schools. If people don’t even know the teenagers are in the building, they must be too busy studying to get into trouble, Betanzos said.

“We’re a quiet neighbor,” she added.

Since 1992, the John V. Lindsay school has quietly made a difference in the lives of its students. Betanzos and principal Ron Tabano have been with the school since its inception. Its dropout rate is only 8 percent, compared with 20.3 percent for the city as a whole and even higher for minorities, who make up the majority of Wildcat students. About three-quarters of the students go on to college.

Like New York City’s 23 other charter schools, John V. Lindsay is a public school that can set many of its own rules and regulations. For example, students at the school go to class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., 12 months a year.

In explaining the attendance policy, Betanzos said she tells the students, “You’ve wasted time, now it’s time to catch up.”

This explanation has motivated students since then-Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez asked Betanzos in the early 1990s to open up an alternative school. Wildcat Service Corporation, a not-for-profit agency, had been training welfare recipients, ex-offenders, former substance abusers and others since 1972. A high school represented a natural outgrowth of their efforts, Betanzos said, a way to divert students before they needed further help down the line.

“We felt we could head these kids off at the pass,” Betanzos said.

To do this, the school focuses on small classes of not more than 10 students. All students alternate between one week of a full-time internship and one week of classes. The internships, which are paid, help them experience a real work environment while learning new skills.

This kind of schedule, along with individualized attention, doesn’t leave much room for mischief.

“They try to jam everything into one,” said Sasha Deroche, 16, of Brooklyn, who along with her class was reading Sophocles’ Oedipus.

The small school’s hallways are lined with the students’ work—colorful paintings that look like the work of serious artists, poems and essays. Students said that the teachers’ belief in them contributes greatly to their success.

“It’s great—it helped me pull my grades up,” said Engel Peguero, 17, of Upper Manhattan. “You get to be yourself—not like in the regular school.”

The school started at 161 Hudson St and moved to its current location several years ago. Wildcat Service Corporation picked its Downtown locations because it has always had ties to the financial industry, with companies like Citigroup hiring training program graduates, Betanzos said.

Community members initially expressed reluctance at the idea of having a high school in an office building, but the school convinced the skeptics that it could be done, Betanzos said. The John V. Lindsay Wildcat Charter School paved the way for the likes of Millennium High School, a public school geared to Downtowners that opened this fall in the high-rise office building at 75 Broad St.

The Wildcat school supports itself with a mixture of public and private funds. Betanzos said that the biggest challenge of running the academy was “getting money for things that you really want to do that would be beneficial to the kids.”

For example, Betanzos said she would love to take a group of students on a trip to a rain forest in Puerto Rico. Even though it’s way outside the budget, Betanzos said she hasn’t given up hope: “I dream, and sometimes these dreams even come true.”

Elizabeth@DowntownExpress.com




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