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School for Autistic Children Opens at Old PS 51

(L-R) DEPUTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR and Chief Operating Officer Corey Polshanski, QSAC President Yvette Watts, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Deputy Executive Director Lisa Veglia, Assembly Member Mark Gjonaj, and other Board members cut the ribbon at the opening of the QSAC school.
Photo by Deborah Cruz

The doors to a once so-called “toxic school” reopened with a well-attended ribbon cutting for Quality Services for the Autism Community school (QSAC). Administrators told the Norwood News the school is no longer a health hazard.

“There is a whole new system in place, we have our testers come in quarterly and test our air and our water and we have passed all of our tests,” said Susan Silvestri, director of the QSAC school, at the school’s ribbon cutting on Jan. 26. “We are actually going to graduate to testing twice a year instead of four times a year.”

The building, at 3200 Jerome Ave., had housed a lamp factory in the 1970s and later a garage. Trichloroethylene (TCE), a widely known industrial chemical, was heavily used in the cleaning of the site before becoming the home of PS 51x. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) leased the space beginning in the 1990s, converting the space into classrooms.

High levels of TCE, well beyond acceptable standards and invisible to many, were found inside classrooms in 2011, prompting the New York City Department of Health to step in and close the building. The school was relocated to the Belmont section of the Bronx. The building, meantime, was remediated following pressure from PS 51 Parents United, a group of neighborhood parents.

“I am very conscientious about it,” said Silvestri of the monitoring. “I want to know everything about this building because I am responsible for it.”

QSAC is a nonprofit group that receives funding from the NYC DOE to provide education to autistic children. Students as old as age 21 will be bussed to the school from all parts of the city. For QSAC, it’s their first foray into the Bronx. It received high praise from Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who attended the ceremony and calling the school “one more thing we can brag about.”

When asked about the TCE problem, the Deputy Executive Director of QSAC, Lisa A. Veglia, said, “I called the people that were responsible in the DOH and the [New York City Department of Environmental Protection] and asked them ‘would you open a program here? Is it safe?’ and they stood by their cleanup.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) cleared the building to be opened after building owners fulfilled its promise when under the Brownfield Cleanup Program (BCP), a program focused on the cleanup of sites with exceeding levels of contaminated soil. The end goal is to stimulate redevelopment in economically damaged communities.

Following the closure of the school, a law proposed by Councilman Fernando Cabrera mandates the DOE publicly post test results the agency receives of schools that show high traces of toxic chemicals.

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