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An East Harlem group hopes to open a Latino Children's Zone

If Myrta Cuadra-Lash gets her wish, she could become Latino New York’s version of Geoffrey Canada, the now-famous founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

The executive director of the non-profit Sinergia, Cuadra-Lash is applying for a federal grant to create a Children’s Zone for Latino youth. She’s focusing on East Harlem, which is predominantly Latino, whereas the population currently served by Canada’s program is African-American. Though Cuadra-Lash’s idea is in its early stages — she’s applying for a one-year planning grant — she’s already brought three public schools, Mount Sinai Medical Center, two colleges, and other community organizations on board.

Promise Neighborhood grants are part of the Obama administration’s goal to replicate Canada’s program, an anti-poverty experiment that follows children from birth to adulthood. Zeroing in on a few neighborhood blocks in Harlem, the Children’s Zone offers parenting classes, after school activities, and has started its own network of charter schools. The program has received high praise — and some questions about the strength of its results so far and its scalability.

Sinergia recently moved its offices to East Harlem, but the organization, which began in 1977, has long worked with the neighborhood’s Latino population, Cuadra-Lash said. The group’s name means “synergy” in Spanish.

Though she plans to mimic Canada’s model in many ways, Cuadra-Lash said that her version of the Children’s Zone would have a greater emphasis on children with mental disabilities and retardation. This is also Sinergia’s focus.

“We’re going to serve all children,” Cuadra-Lash said. “If you’re going to offer promise, you also have to offer promise to kids with disabilities.”

Two East Harlem middle schools have signed on as Sinergia’s partners — Esperanza Preparatory Academy and Global Neighborhood Secondary School. The third school, the Renaissance Charter High School for Innovation, is brand new and will open this fall.

All of the schools have a high percentage of special education students and children who are not fluent in English. A member of Renaissance’s founding team said that 39 percent of its incoming ninth graders will require special education accommodations and 27 percent are English Language Learners.

The competition for Promise Neighborhood planning grants is stiff — only 20 organizations will receive between $400,000 and $500,000 planning grants and over a thousand have applied. Cuadra-Lash’s proximity to Harlem Children’s Zone has her slightly worried about her chances, but she said she hopes to work with the group she’s assembled regardless of whether she gets the grant.

Applicants will learn whether they got the grant on September 30.

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