NEW YORK (AP) _ The new Miss America traded her crown for a painter's cap and joined two schoolchildren Thursday to kick off a project to rehabilitate a decrepit grammar school.

''There's going to be a barn-raising on the Lower East Side,'' said A. Justin Sperling, founder and executive director of the Sperling Community Service Foundation, which is overseeing the project.

Real work at the International Community School begins Dec. 12 - a national volunteer day on which Sperling's group conducts similar programs around the country.

The beauty queen, Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, wearing a white painter's cap and a red, white and blue sweater and dress, helped 10-year-old Tauheedah Williams enthusiastically run a paint brush across a door to syumbolize the project's start.

''Are you having fun?'' Miss America, who is from Monroe, Mich., asked her painting partner, who smiled in answer. Another fifth-grader, 10-year-old Eric Linn, joined in making brush strokes.

Above the courtyard door where the group painted, dozens of broken windows were evident, along with peeling paint, cracking mortar and missing bricks. Inside were more broken windows and doors, along with flaking paint.

''It would be nice to fix the school. They will put in nice windows,'' said Linn, who posed for dozens of pictures with Miss America. ''It would look decent.''

''People forget about education and the importance of our children - they're more interested in bank accounts and buying condos,'' said Sperling. ''We want to remind people of their roots.''

Miss Rafko signed autographs, posed for picture upon picture, shook hands - and made a deep impression on at least one young man.

''She'll have my phone number some day,'' said Joel Llosa, a 13-year-old wearing a Yankees hat and jacket. ''We could have dinner.''