Last Wednesday, Zone 126, a community-based organization that aids students in Astoria and Long Island City, announced that it has received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to bring resources to PS 171 and IS 126.
The federal grant, which will be implemented over five years, will allow partnering organizations to bring after-school and summer programing, social and emotional development and other services to 1,200 students and their families.
The New York City Department of Education (DOE), through its Renewal School program, already works with Zone 126 at Long Island City High School. Bringing an elementary and a middle school into the fold will allow the organization to create a neighborhood pipeline for educational attainment, the organization said.
“Our definition of a community school doesn’t involve just one school,” said Anthony Lopez, executive director of Zone 126. “It involves at least three schools that feed into each other in a local neighborhood where there’s a high rate of poverty.”
Zone 126 serves families in the three public housing developments in the area: Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Astoria Houses. Most of their students attend the three neighborhood schools that the organization supports.
According to Lopez, only 15 out of 121 grant applications nationwide were funded. Zone 126’s application ranked 10th overall.
The grant will allow the group to hire a community school director at both PS 171 and IS 126, and a coordinator to oversee the program. The rest of the grant money will go toward partner organizations such as The Child Center of NY, City Year New York, Jacob Riis Neighborhood Settlement and the Variety Boys & Girls Club.
“We hope that we will use this grant to leverage support from the private sector here, locally from the small business community and from the corporate community in Long Island City,” Lopez said. “We believe they could be doing a lot more to support this side of western Queens.”
He noted that grant money has many restrictions, which is why both private and community-based funding is important to sustain the work they do.
Lopez said additional resources means students will have more access to services and opportunities, whether it’s in school or at other institutions like public housing and local libraries.
Pooja O’Hanlon, executive director of the Thomas and Jeanne Elmezzi Private Foundation, which founded Zone 126 seven years ago, said their mission is to support programs that help shrink the opportunity gap for children and youth.
Since 2011, the Elmezzi Foundation has invested more than $4 million into Zone 126. Thomas Elmezzi, who grew up in Astoria, was a former high-ranking executive at Pepsi.
“All of this is extremely validating of an idea we helped seed a mere seven years ago,” O’Hanlon said. “An award like this creates the space for all of these assets, and their hopes and dreams, to shine even brighter.”
Local educators pointed to the progress made at Long Island City High School as an example of how a community school model can work. According to principal Vivian Selenikas, both the four-year graduation rate and attendance rate jumped 10 percent in four years.
“But we’re not done yet,” Selenikas said. “What will make a difference is this pipeline.”
In addition to increasing educational attainment and completion rates, Zone 126 implements a model that prepares students to graduate high school, prepare for college and become career-ready.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who has supported the organization’s efforts and grant applications, said the grant was competitive. Zone 126 was the only winner in the entire state, she noted.
“You’ll have a steady stream of money, you’re going to have five years to really focus on how you can grow it and make it stronger,” she said. “We have an opportunity to really forge something that could be a model for the whole country.
“When you think about the possibilities of what this could mean to the young people, it’s really very thrilling,” added Maloney, a former teacher.
The congresswoman also encouraged Zone 126 leaders to apply again for the Promise Neighborhoods grant, which was established under President Barack Obama.
The federal initiative identifies a neighborhood where help is needed and pours resources into the area. Lopez said past awardees have been funded up to $30 million over five years.
The organization received a planning grant, but not an implementation grant from the program.
“We hope that with this experience, we will get better at being more competitive to apply for that,” he said.