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City moves to close Cypress Hills school at heart of federal grant

As the new year began, J.H.S. 302 in Brooklyn thought it was on the right track.

Principal Lisa Linder had worked with a local nonprofit to apply for a federal grant to flood the low-performing school and the surrounding neighborhood with extra help for students and their families. In late December, the nonprofit, Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, found out it would get $371,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to move forward with the project.

Then the other shoe dropped: The city Department of Education announced on Jan. 7 that it planned to close J.H.S. 302.

The news has thrown the nonprofit partnership into question — and it has also put J.H.S. 302 at the center of a tug-of-war between two competing visions about how to improve struggling schools.

The Bloomberg administration has taken many approaches to helping the city’s lowest-performing schools over the last decade. But the strategy it has returned to most often is to close weak schools and open new options in their place.

That strategy has drawn more and more criticism as evidence increasingly shows that new schools do not always perform better and that, especially for high schools, closures can contribute to other schools’ decline. Now, as the Bloomberg administration enters its final years, elected officials in the city are pointing to a different approach: “community schools” that offer medical, mental health, and social services alongside classroom instruction.

Inspired by a union-organized trip to see Cincinnati’s community schools, most of the Democratic candidates for mayor have committed to promoting the model, arguing that children cannot succeed academically unless they are physically and emotionally supported first.

This philosophy underpins the Promise Neighborhood grant program the U.S. Department of Education launched in 2010. Modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, the program funds local efforts to provide educational, social, and health services to all children in a single neighborhood, from their birth to their first days of college.

Each year, the department awards two kinds of grants: planning grants to figure out how to help local communities, and implementation grants to put those plans into action. In December, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation was one of 10 community groups nationwide awarded the latest planning grants.

Rob Abbot, the nonprofit’s director of youth and family services, said one of the grant’s priorities is to improve middle school education in the neighborhood, with a particular eye towards boosting students’ math and reading test scores. But what exactly the organization proposes to do for J.H.S. 302 and in the neighborhood as a whole, Abbot said, depends on the needs identified in an initial assessment and the possible solutions that emerge through collaboration with other schools.

Linder said she hoped the planning process would focus in part on finding ways to better serve the J.H.S. 302’s large bilingual population and introducing more technology to the school, which already belongs to the city Department of Education’s Innovation Zone.

Emily Blank, Cypress Hills’ development director, said she chose to partner with J.H.S. 302 because of a “longstanding relationship” with the school and with Linder, and because the corporation already runs the Beacon school-based community center there.

“This [grant] really gives us the opportunity to pull resources together, and hopefully leverage that to get more resources that will really make the difference,” she said.

Though J.H.S. 302 is the main partner school, the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation also plans to collaborate with five other schools in the neighborhood, including P.S. 89, a K-8 school the nonprofit helped found that has been more succcessful than J.H.S. 302. “We’ll be looking at practices [at P.S. 89] that are having good results and are preparing middle school students for successful transition to high school,” Abbot said.

Blank called the new funds “game-changing” and said the group plans to apply for a federal Promise implementation grant once the planning process is complete.

But J.H.S. 302 might not be around by then. If the school’s closure is approved — and it is likely to be, given the city school board’s 100 percent track record in supporting city proposals — it won’t have a sixth grade this fall. Next year, it would have only an eighth grade, and it would close its doors for the last time when those students graduate in 2015. That means the partnership could not fulfill the terms of its grant application, which, Linder noted, “was written with the framework of 302 having grades six to eight.”

Blank said officials from the U.S. Department of Education advised her last week that Cypress Hills’s Promise Neighborhood project would not be called off just because J.H.S. 302 might close. She said she plans to proceed with J.H.S. 302 as the partner school and then, “if 302 were closed, we would move along with whatever school is the replacement.”

That means the project of revamping the school will follow an uncertain course for some time. While the school closures will not be finalized until March and new schools will not get up and running until this summer, Promise Neighborhood grantees are expected to begin the planning process this month.

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