Helping students succeed with the neighborhood
by Anthony Lopez
Feb 28, 2017 | 2424 views | 0 0 comments | 166 166 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On a recent Saturday morning while easing into my day, I nearly did a spit-take when I spotted a cover story in The New York Times billing Astoria as a neighborhood being transformed into a “gold coast” with “high-end rental complexes.”

In short, a place for well-off newcomers who are not likely to send their children to the local public schools.

Like any native New Yorker, I enjoy new restaurants and thriving neighborhoods. I applaud development that makes smart use of buildings that have become eyesores and recreates blighted stretches of the city.

I’m proud of our low-crime rate, growing population and multiplying cafes, even if it means I’m spending more on coffee than I ever imagined.

Still, as an advocate for children in Astoria and Long Island City, I see an area with schools that are not benefiting from gentrification.

Instead, like we’ve seen in Bushwick and Harlem, the newcomers either don’t have children, send their children to out-of-neighborhood schools, or move to the suburbs when the kids finish preschool.

As a result, the struggling public schools almost exclusively serve children from nearby housing projects. They are teaching children too often trapped in a cycle of poverty and starting kindergarten well behind their peers across the city who enter elementary school with rich vocabularies and pre-reading skills.

Long Island City and Astoria serve three of the biggest housing projects in New York City: the Queensbridge Houses are in zip code 11101, the Astoria Houses are in 11102, and the Ravenswood Houses are in 11106.

So it’s not surprising that 91 percent of students in these local schools are low income, less than six out of 10 of graduate high school, and only 10 percent get a bachelor’s degree.

In elementary schools, students perform below the city average on reading and math exams.

These schools need help to get their students to succeed.

In 2011, The Elmezzi Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving conditions for Astoria residents, created Zone 126 to get help for the schools in these zip codes.

Much like The Harlem Children Zone helped rebuild education in upper Manhattan, Zone 126 is taking a targeted approach to making sure children and their families in northwest Queens succeed.

Zone 126 works with 23 partner organizations in this effort to help more than 10,000 children and their families in Long Island City and Astoria.

The goal, using a cradle-to-career approach, is to get more students in the area graduating high school, into college, and over time out of poverty. One essential strand of this work is a focus on students who are off track for success.

Most of the schools within Zone 126 work diligently to serve all students, but fall short in meeting the needs of the most underserved student populations.

They offer few options to students who have not experienced success in traditional settings, and provide limited support or environments that are required to re-engage them in learning, identify and address their unique needs, or create a sense of belonging at school.

Emerging evidence suggests that all of these conditions are necessary for students who have fallen or are being pushed off track for success if they are to experience real academic achievement and ready themselves for college and career.

Zone 126 determines what each school needs most, and partners with an organization to provide services or farms out staff to plug a hole.

For instance, to address high absenteeism at Long Island City High School, Zone 126 hired a staffer to make home visits to truants. If kids aren’t going to high school, they’re not likely to go to college.

Attendance has gone up at the school as a result.

For elementary schools, we brought in the group ENACT to addresses behavior problems through drama-therapy and creative theater techniques. It is delivered by teams of engaging professional actors and counselors.

To give parents of young children a leg up, Zone 126 enlisted NYU Parent Prep to teach pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students and their parents about nutrition, reading and other important issues.

We want to make sure northwest Queens thrives. We’re stepping in to make sure schools don’t get left behind in the building boom of Long Island City and Astoria, so that the children who live there can afford to live in those high-rises with pools and saunas when they grow up.

Anthony Lopez is executive director of Zone 126.
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