Making Change: The New Schools

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When cypress hills Local Development Corporation helped found the Cypress Hills Community School back in 1997, the group hadn’t planned to actually build a school building. It just sort of happened–or rather, it will happen. Probably. If everything goes according to plan. Which is far from certain.

Michelle Neugebauer, Cypress Hills LDC’s executive director, concedes the project has required “a lot of risk and a lot of money,” from seed dollars to staff time, so she has learned to live with the ambiguity. After all, her organization is trying to do something no local CDC has done before: build, own and operate a school.

Founded five years ago, the Cypress Hills Community School grew out of neighborhood parents’ desire for better schools and local input in curriculum, hiring, and management. Cypress Hills LDC organized parents and community members around education reform and the need for classroom space. The school has already relocated twice; it now occupies five classrooms and a pair of portable trailers at I.S. 302. There is no common space, no gym, and only limited library access, so parents, staff and local politicians are hopeful about the $20 million facility Cypress Hills LDC is proposing to build nearby. With seed funding from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and a grant from New Visions for Public Schools, Cypress Hills is negotiating purchase of an industrial building, which it plans to refurbish and turn into a 400-seat school serving kindergarten through 8th grade. In December, the Board of Education authorized $17 million for site acquisition and construction.

Cypress Hills, along with a handful of other CDCs now working on construction projects for community-based schools, could take community-driven school reform to a deeper and possibly more influential level. The school construction projects undertaken by CDCs have all emerged from strong parent and community organizing around education reform; building schools has emerged as a way to leverage the CDCs’ technical expertise in finance and redevelopment as an vital part of making quality, neighborhood-driven schools a reality.

Still, school construction is new territory for CDCs, involving bureaucratic, financial, and regulatory challenges that may have parallels in housing development but also bring a steep learning curve and a lot of uncertainties. The Board of Ed has been open to the idea, but turf battles with the School Construction Authority (SCA), which is entrenched in relationships with existing private developers, seem inevitable. And unless the Board of Ed and the SCA develop guidelines and find consistent funding for CDC school development projects, a promising idea may remain strictly academic.

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The inadequacies of New York City’s school facilities are no secret. According to “Still No Room to Learn,” a December 2000 report from then-Public Advocate Mark Green, 53 percent of New York City elementary schools are overcrowded, operating at 99 percent or greater capacity. In 10 districts, almost all of which serve low-income communities, 70 percent or more of elementary schools operate at 99 percent or greater capacity. In a system serving 1 million children, the overall shortfall has climbed to upwards of 100,000 seats–a figure that does not include countless decaying facilities. Yet even prior to cuts made this past fall, the Board of Ed’s 1999 five-year capital plan would have provided only 28 percent of the seats needed in Brooklyn, the Bronx and upper Manhattan, and just one in five in Queens.

CDC industry leaders, educators and school construction advocates argue that CDCs could eventually play a pivotal role in easing this crisis. A few years ago, an ad hoc coalition of CDCs, financial institutions, community organizers, and intermediary organizations formed the School Construction Working Group and took their case before the Board of Ed and the SCA. Traditionally, the school construction process is lengthy and expensive, taking five to 10 years as the School Construction Authority assembles tracts of land, hires contractors and oversees construction of large schools. CDCs, supporters reasoned, would focus on small developments–rehabilitated schools, warehouses, commercial spaces–which they would refurbish or build to smaller scale. Since most CDCs have experience with commercial and housing development, they are well suited for modest school construction projects.

“What CDCs bring to the table is not a magic formula that makes a CDC able to deliver a classroom seat at less cost–although they are capable of making some savings–and it’s not that there is such capability that they could clear the construction backlog in three years, but there are certain things they can do,” says Joan Byron, architectural director of the Pratt Center for Community and Environmental Development and a convener of the the working group.

In 1998, the working group and the Board of Ed started discussing the possibility of having CDCs develop school facilities that they would then lease them back to the board. The group also persuaded state legislators to create guidelines that would allow CDCs to receive Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, a U.S. Department of Education financial instrument that offers federal tax credits to the institution holding the bond.

Beyond their technical expertise, CDCs can also sharpen the community focus of individual schools. Of the few CDCs that have initiated school construction projects–including Abyssinian Baptist Development Corporation in Harlem, and El Puente LDC in Brooklyn, as well as Cypress Hills–every one entered into construction after starting community-based schools in existing facilities. The curricula at Abyssinian’s Thurgood Marshall Academy for Learning and Social Change and the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, for example, both emphasize community activism as well as academic rigor. Cypress Hills, meanwhile, is bilingual English/Spanish, with small classes and a curriculum designed by its parent board.

This soup-to-nuts involvement, advocates say, engenders a sense of community ownership and accountability, which the schools have leveraged into lobbying and advocacy on their behalf. When Cypress Hills was pushing for the school development bonds, parents rallied in front of the Board of Ed and pitched a tent city in a lot adjacent to I.S. 302.

Parent Involvement Coordinator Maria Jaya-Vega first got involved in Cypress Hills’ parent organizing efforts back when her own children attended local schools. Today, the parents she works with are coauthors of the Community School’s curriculum, working closely with administators. “You don’t see that in [other] schools,” says Jaya-Vega. “We’re more than bake sales and buildings.”

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The bright hopes that followed the talks with the Board of Ed have dimmed somewhat amid the glacial pace of bureaucratic reform, the gloom of the city’s current fiscal crisis, and political shake-ups in both the Board of Ed and City Hall. As Public Advocate and then as mayoral candidate, Mark Green backed school construction reform and seemed poised to push through new guidelines that would have opened the door for more CDCs to build and refurbish schools. Mayor Bloomberg is a harder read. But Bloomberg appointed Karen Phillips, Abyssinian’s president and CEO, to his transition team, which means that at least one of the players in CDC school construction has the mayor’s ear.

Advocates point to two areas where reform is needed most: in planning and in streamlining construction. “Part of the reform process is that the city should be involved in planning up front,” says Denise Scott, managing director of New York LISC. Scott and others point to changes in the Housing Construction Authority under the Koch administration as one potential model. Through much of the 1970s, the city housing authority directly managed most public housing construction but eventually streamlined the process and opened the door to CDCs. “Not to dis the SCA,” Scott argues, “but there has to be faster, easier, cheaper way to build schools.”

Despite the bureaucratic torpor, reformers credit the Board of Ed for its willingness to consider the possibilities. “With the success CDCs have had in housing, it’s easy to forget how long it took us to get to this point,” Joan Byron recalls. “People forget that many years were spent occupying offices at HPD and picketing before it became accepted. For the Board of Ed to be talking about this is progress–it’s not fast, but it’s progress.” The next step, she says, would be to outline a process for determining technical and financial feasibility, and then setting a process for moving projects forward.

At least one CDC is moving ahead without financial assistance from the Board of Ed. Northeast Brooklyn Local Development Corporation is working with Clearpool, Inc., a nonprofit charter school company, to jointly rehabilitate a 45,000-square-foot facility in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The singular partnership leverages each party’s strengths: Clearpool focuses on building the curriculum and running the school, and Northeast Brooklyn is managing the project development and organizing community support. Jeffrey Dunston, Northeast Brooklyn LDC’s executive director, estimates the project will cost around $10 million-roughly half of what the School Construction Authority would charge for similar space–which the groups hope to finance through private grants and loans. “The two organizations are definitely committed to this,” Dunston says. “We want to make it happen. We believe we can develop a private model, and we are committed to that ideal.” Dunston concedes, however, that someone–in his case, foundations–will have to pick up the tab.

In the end, the most formidable obstacle to any school construction project is money. Without formal procedures for public financing of feasibility studies, CDCs have had to finance their own pre-development work, which can cost upwards of $400,000. As as result, development has been somewhat extemporaneous. El Puente, Cypress Hills, and Abyssinian all won grants from New Visions, awards that guaranteed visibility and political support. Northeast Brooklyn and Clearpool are splitting costs down the middle.

But ad hoc is not a remedy for the city’s school construction crisis. Given the current climate of fiscal austerity, new capital projects will face an even steeper climb. “The real crux of the problem, underneath all the discussion of mechanisms and guidelines, is who takes what level of risk at what point,” Byron observes. School officials and CDCs, she says, ought to help one another settle that question.

The new administration may be inclined to work out the bureaucratic kinks; at the end of the day, after all, it is far less risky to talk about reforming the school construction process than it is to actually fund the work. Which means that the regulatory pump may get primed, but CDCs could have to wait to get the construction cash flowing.