A Second Facility for New York State's first Latino-led Charter School Amber II School Facility
Led by the community-based Association of Progressive Dominicans (ACDP), Amber Charter School became the first Latino-led charter school in New York State in 2000. Fourteen years later, the school’s success inspired expansion plans, but site search challenges and a constrained budget hindered progress. With the start a new school year looming and 100 students arriving, Amber looked to Denham Wolf’s Project Management team to get prepared.
Amber’s first facility, located in East Harlem, serves approximately 500 students in grades K to 5. The school’s core curriculum of literacy, mathematics, science, and social studies is complemented by visual arts, music, physical education, and technology education, and is further enriched by the school’s commitment to bilingual instruction. Amber’s early success caused the length of the school’s admissions waitlist to unsustainably increase, catalyzing the planning process for Amber Charter School II.
The school’s leadership quickly identified Washington Heights, home to the largest Dominican community in New York City, as a strong option for this next facility. Culturally, the area was a natural fit for Amber’s expansion, but the neighborhood’s limited institutional sites presented a major challenge. Despite there being no formal connection between Amber and the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of New York emerged as an ally on the project, leasing the school 15,000 square feet of space on West 187th Street.
Comprising a basement and two above-ground floors delivered as-is, the newly acquired space required targeted improvement in order to achieve Amber’s goals. Denham Wolf was engaged to help the school creatively upgrade the new facility without breaking the bank or encroaching upon the quickly approaching school year. Shortly thereafter, our Project Management Services team led the selection of WXY Architecture + Urban Design and Build Sprout as team members. In addition to an ability to identify creative solutions, a connection to Amber’s impact on the local community was critical to the client, and both firms embodied these qualities.
Together, the project team set out to assess the space and upgrade it into a vibrant learning environment. We determined that improvements to the basement and first floor could be limited to cosmetic changes, but the second floor required a full demolition and build-out to successfully support Amber’s program. Denham Wolf subsequently led the team in structuring and implementing a phased renovation process, which allowed for cosmetic work to be done in tandem with the second floor’s permitting and approvals process. In many ways, the project’s design and construction phases were intertwined; the success of both hinged on detailed revisions to the project’s schedule and budget throughout the project, as well as continuous communication among the client, landlord, and project team.
Amber II opened in the fall of 2016, less than a year after the project started. The school currently serves just over 100 students through its 5 classrooms, 11 offices, performance-friendly multi-purpose room, adjacent pantry, storage space, and several other support areas. The facility now features several student-centered design features, such as anamorphic projections in the hallways and child-height imagery on doors. The latter serves as a visual cue as to the space beyond. Similarly, color coding in the stairwells subtly communicates your location within the school without relying on a specific language.
The completed facility serves as a home for students and as a key pivot point in Amber’s continued growth. Without a strong project team and clear, shared goals for the project, the school would not have achieved completion so efficiently nor would it serve the Amber student population and the Washington Heights neighborhood so successfully.
“As is the case with most educational projects, there is a critical date for completion. For Amber, that date was especially imminent. Nonetheless, because of the strong commitment to childhood learning by all of our team members and our holistic technical approach to this project, we succeeded in establishing Amber’s presence in the Washington Heights community. ”
—Jonathan Denham, Co-President at Denham Wolf