By Dustin Brown
In the refurbished shell of a former Jamaica Avenue bowling alley and shooting range, Alma Alston serves as the principal to her dream.
Early Saturday afternoon, the lifelong educator sat comfortably perched behind a desk in a principal’s office she only began occupying a month earlier. Just steps outside her door, a dozen young students clad in navy blue frocks and blazers roamed the halls with their parents and school staff.
They were all waiting to begin the open house ceremony that would christen the new Queens Village home of the Merrick Academy Queens Public Charter School, founded by Alston a year ago.
Shortly after the state Legislature created a system of charter schools in 1998, Alston submitted an application detailing her vision for a school, an idea she developed in 26 years as a teacher and administrator.
A former private-school principal, she was all too familiar with the dilemma faced by parents who had to choose between sending their children to substandard public schools or scrimping to afford a private education.
“Where they lived in many instances the educational system was one that did not meet the educational needs of their children,” Alston said. “Via this avenue, parents are given a choice.”
Parents learned about the school last year through advertisements and old-fashioned word-of-mouth, and their children won spots in its classroom through a lottery.
Operating independently of the laws that govern all other public schools, charter schools are designed to improve student learning and encourage innovative teaching while providing parents with more choices in a beleaguered public school system.
The former bowling alley and shooting range — the walls of which were still riddled with lead when Merrick acquired it — was converted into Merrick Academy within just 10 months. On Oct. 5, the sounds of students were first heard along the shiny orange-tiled halls at 207-01 Jamaica Ave.
The space was discovered last year by Jean Lowe, one of many parents on a building search committee who made finding a permanent home for Merrick Academy her mission.
“We knew we needed a place to go,” Lowe said. “It was a big open area that we were able to construct into what we wanted.”
At that point in fall of 2000, the school had just opened with 125 students in kindergarten, first and second grade. It operated out of the large auditorium at United Methodist Church in Springfield Gardens, where room dividers were set up to split the space into individual classrooms.
“The students as well as the teachers became acclimated,” Alston said. “We worked very well in that environment and we had a very productive year.”
Standardized test scores showed that students improved on average by an entire grade level by the end of the year. This year the school spans kindergarten through third grade, with the goal of adding a grade each year until senior year of high school.
Parents who attended Saturday’s open house could hardly have been more pleased with their students’ progress under Alston’s tutelage.
“I love it,” said Deggra Stratton, the PTA president and mother of a second grader. “She’s reading very well, she’s doing math very well. If she was at a different school, I don’t think she would be this advanced.”
For their part, many students like the school so much that they do not even complain that the day lasts until 4 p.m. Third grader Gregory Lowe, whose mother found the facility, said he enjoys getting the extra classroom time to work on his homework.
“I get to do a lot of work and I get to learn new stuff,” he said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.