Group looks to combat education issues in Astoria/LIC
by Chase Collum
Jul 09, 2014 | 403 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Over the past decade, high school graduation rates around the U.S. have jumped ten points to a record 81 percent. And while much of Queens is enjoying the economic benefit that comes along with an educated workforce and a well-paid population, there are still many areas where poverty is the norm and education takes a backseat to real world crises for many young people.

Some of Astoria’s most vulnerable students come from the 11101, 11102 and 11106 zip codes, where statistics say only half of the 10,000 current students will graduate from high school.

And only 2 percent will go on to finish college, according to Patricia Batista, director of Communications and Marketing for Zone126, a local non-profit organization aimed at eliminating the pockets of poverty that affect 20,000 people in LIC and Astoria, many of them children.

“There is gentrification and all this development that’s going on, but there’s this huge, growing pocket of poverty,” Batista said. “With this growing gentrification, it’s increasing the average of what the income is in the neighborhoods, so when nonprofits are trying to get grants we’re being told there’s not a need.”

Zone 126 was born out of a 2009 community survey by the Elmezzi Foundation that highlighted the specific areas of need in the Astoria and Long Island City communities.

“In 2009, The Elmezzi Foundation embarked on a community-wide survey of the needs of over 3,000 residents in zip codes 11101, 11102 and 11106, spanning parts of Astoria and Long Island City to better ascertain resident priorities,” said Elmezzi Chairman Jose Rivero. “Survey results overwhelmingly highlighted education as parents’ top concern for their children.

“The analysis of resident needs outlined in the Project 126 Report, along with a yearlong review of place-based, education reform initiatives, The Elmezzi Foundation decided to found Zone 126,” Rivero added. “The pipeline of Cradle to Career programs, in addition to Zone 126’s Collective Impact partnerships, has been a positive and critical foundational development.”

One of the early campaigns to be undertaken by Zone126 was a collaboration with the 17-year-old America’s Promise Alliance (APA) on a project called “Don’t Call Them Dropouts.”

“When Zone126 was in their early planning stages, they reached out to us,” said Tanya Tucker, vice president of Alliance Engagement, who works with the national education advocacy group. “We really wanted to be able to connect with other communities, where they could be under the national spotlight.”

Through a small grant and conferences, the APA found in Zone126 a thought partner, and began working as a peer leader and champion for the work they’re doing on the ground, Tucker said. The most important part of that work is the youth outreach that seeks to find the issues that are affecting students who become disengaged with school.

“We thought one of the things that was really sort of missing in the education research was going to young people to hear their stories and experiences as to why they had become disengaged with school,” Tucker said. “A lot of what young people are dealing with actually doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on in the school. If we don’t go directly to young people to hear from them what’s going on, we can’t find the right solutions.”

Batista said she and her colleagues found Tucker’s assertion to be true, and that non-school related issues were a driving force behind school disengagement.

“There’s lots of unemployment; sometimes these kids are helping raise their little brothers and sisters; some of them felt stigmatized,” she said. “By junior high school they were being told, ‘you’re never going to succeed.’ There’s domestic violence, sometimes there is extreme poverty and the students have to provide for that gap in funds. And there is an issue with depression in our neighborhoods.”

After compiling all of the data they collected, Zone126 began to formulate its multi-phase process of introducing programming into poverty-stricken neighborhoods and measuring the effect of the programs through a collective impact analysis.

The four major groupings of Zone126’s Cradle to Career programming include Thrive by Five for the youngest learners; Students Achieve for students in grade school up to right before high school; Young Adults Succeed, which covers middle school through college; and Supportive Families, a program for parents.

Zone126 only began full-scale, collective impact measurement of the entire scope of their programming last year, and Batista said the organization should have a baseline report ready as early as this fall. Once that data is available, the organization will utilize it to create direct programming for the next decade of their long-term impact analysis study.

“This is the first year that we’re doing the same evaluation across age groups for all our programs,” Batista said. “By September, we should get a baseline report of preliminary findings. We plan on using that information in real time to change and tweak parts and components of our programs and see those increases.”

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