Crowding Fears Hit A Fever Pitch : Tribeca Tribune
Crowding Fears Hit A Fever Pitch
It should come as no surprise that Lower Manhattan ’s child boom is outpacing classroom space. Principals and parent activists have been sounding that alarm for years.
But last month the projections grew more chilling, the outrage louder, and the possible outcomes—five-year-olds turned away from kindergartens, 5th graders bused miles from home, trailers parked on playgrounds—were more unsettling than ever.
Suddenly, the landscape for local parents and principals is awash with overcrowding task forces and studies, high-level reports and recommendations, and calendars filled with meetings. All of it is meant to grapple with a classroom squeeze that many believe will not be solved even when two elementary Downtown schools and their nearly 1,000 elementary seats open in the next two or three years.
“There is a movement brewing here,” Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer observed, as he stood before a recent gathering of some 250 District 2 parents, many from P.S. 234 and P.S. 89, who had come to hear him speak about overcrowding in the district. “I want to shake up Tweed Courthouse.”
Stringer, whose office recently released a report on school overcrowding in Manhattan, made a pitch for long-term solutions that include planning on neighborhood, not school district, levels and budgeting more for new buildings in the upcoming five-year capital plan.
But his voice grew angry when a Department of Education official, District 2 Parent Advocate Jennifer Greenblatt, called for a non-adversarial process in which all parties “work together.”
“Maybe you can do me a favor,” Stringer shot back, his words leading to a crescendo of applause. “You can call [Schools Chancellor] Joel Klein today and ask him to send a representative to the District Service Cabinet meetings that go on every month, the Borough [Community] Board meetings that go on every month. If we’re going to really partner with this, we need to get D.O.E. at the table.”
Last month, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver convened a task force of local school stakeholders, including the D.O.E., that is looking into spaces for possible short-term relief. Among them are the new Downtown Community Center on Warren Street for “cluster” classes such as art and science, the Cove Club in lower Battery Park City and Tweed Courthouse. A response from the D.O.E. is expected this month.
In the meantime, a newly formed overcrowding committee at P.S. 234 is flooding Klein and Mayor Bloomberg with signed postcards. Nicki Francis, who is helping to spearhead the campaign, said she has stamped and mailed nearly 8,000 of them.
“We want them to know that we’re very serious about this and we need real solutions,” said Francis, the mother of a kindergartner and a 3-year-old.
A survey that Francis conducted among 11 Lower Manhattan preschools underscores the urgency. Between 2003 and 2008, she found, the number of children enrolled in those schools has more than doubled, from 630 to 1,315. (See chart on next page.)
Ellen Offen, educational director of the Park Preschool on Warren Street , has watched the demand grow year by year. In September, the school will open its second building, on Barclay Street .
“We have 50 students [registered] in Barclay Street ,” said Offen, “and that is just incredible considering the school is not even built yet.”
Anna Grossman, president of Hudson River Park Mamas, a network of more than 700 Downtown parents, said news that some children are being put on hold for kindergarten is bringing a “collective gasp and shock” from many of her members. “And even if they do get in,” she asked, “what classroom size are you talking about?”
“There is outrage over the sheer poor planning,” Grossman added. “It was foreseeable.”
According to an analysis by Eric Greenleaf, a New York University business professor and P.S. 234 parent, the two new schools planned for Downtown, one on Beekman Street that the city said would open in 2008, and the other in southern Battery Park City, will accommodate only about half the seats needed for the new apartments built between 2002 and 2010. (See chart on next page.)
“We want the Department of Education to at least agree on the facts about what is happening Downtown,” Greenleaf said.
D.O.E. spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the department has not seen the committee’s projections and cannot comment on them. But she noted in an e-mail that the entire District 2 enrollment increased by about 200 children a year over the last five years.
One morning last month, P.S. 89 principal Ronnie Najjar stood in the school’s yard as students filed indoors to start their day. She pointed to the little brothers and sisters seated in strollers who one day may be attending her school. “This is no bubble,” she said, referring to a spike in kindergarten enrollment figures for the coming fall.
Upstairs in her office, Najjar pulled out a sheet of paper and pointed to the numbers: 103 children pre-registered so far for kindergarten. Around the same time last year the number was 56 and has never before been higher than 63 at this time in the registration process. Counting rising pre-K students along with up to 10 special education students and 12 children who were put on hold, she estimated a fall kindergarten enrollment of 150.
Najjar next brought out figures on the number of new apartments to be occupied in Battery Park City before the new school is ready, many with family-size two and three bedrooms. The Visionaire, 350 units; Riverhouse, 450 units; the two towers going up on nearby Sites 23 and 24, 471 units.
“You do the math,” she said. “Thirteen hundred units.”
Before the scheduled 2010 opening of the new school in Battery Park City , Najjar said she would be six to eight classrooms short.
At P.S. 234, principal Lisa Ripperger said she can manage for the coming fall. But by 2009 she will need three to four more rooms.
Where will they come from? Is there extra space for 5th graders in Stuyvesant High School , or in some other nearby building? Are trailers a possibility?
Najjar and Ripperger said they favor half-day kindergartens. But the D.O.E. calls it “not an appropriate option.”
“Why not think about it?” said Najjar. “I could have every kid in this building. I’d have a problem the following year with first grade but at least it would give a year for them to work this out.”
By mid-May, both principals were frustrated and upset. For a month they had awaited guidance from D.O.E. officials. Calls and e-mails, they said, were not returned. And parents, especially agitated by a front-page story in the New York Times about overcrowding, looked to them for answers.
“I’m the one who gets up in front of groups of parents, who feels like I’m accountable, like it’s my responsibility or somehow I’ve done something wrong,” said Ripperger.
When the Department of Education came out on May 16 with a “blueprint” of possible short-term strategies for addressing the crowding problem in District 2, parents roundly rejected it. The report suggested that P.S. 234 and P.S. 89 5th graders might move into schools on 17th Street or Chrystie Street if there was absolutely no space available for the new arrivals.
At a meeting of District 2’s Community Education Council (C.E.C.) held May 22 at P.S. 234, parents expressed their dismay.
“You have one year to switch to another school and then you have to think about middle school,” complained one father. “It’s entirely disruptive to the children’s education. It’s disenfranchising to children who have grown up in this school.”
In an e-mail to the Trib late last month, the D.O.E.’s Marge Feinberg said that, based on “the latest information,” that option will not be necessary and the two schools can accommodate the demand in the fall.
“We will be doing all we can to avoid having students of either school attend another building while the two new schools are being constructed,” Feinberg wrote, “but contingency planning is necessary.”
District 2 Superintendent Daria Rigney, one of the blueprint signers, tried to reassure the crowd at the P.S. 234 meeting that it was not final policy, but “an invitation to start the conversation.”
But she questioned doomsday projections that predicted a flood of schoolchildren from new Downtown buildings.
“I know that people say these buildings going up are definitely going to have lots of kids. [But] there are concrete examples of places where that has not been [the case]—apartments not inhabited by families with schoolchildren.”
Rigney repeated an option in the report that suggested P.S. 89 could gain space by moving I.S. 89, which shares the same building, to 26 Broadway. The latter is slated to house a high school, the Urban Assembly Business School for Young Women, now on the east side.
I.S. 89 principal Ellen Foote said parents would be “very distressed” if the students had to move to lower Broadway. For one thing, it concerned her that there was no place for them to go after school.
“At this age children are so fragile. They demand their individuality but they’re too young to be left unsupervised.” Also, she said, there are territorial conflicts that go with moving into a building that is already occupied by another school.”
“It is very difficult to negotiate space if you are given what is left over,” she said.
It is prospects like these, and the lack of planning that seem to have led to them, that has turned parents bitter and angry. “I have immense confidence in the principal and administration at P.S. 234,” said Linda Secondari-Black, the mother of a 1st grader at the school. “I have no confidence in the administration of the Department of Education.”
Class Size Matters
124 Waverly Pl.
New York, NY 10011
Please make a tax-deductible contribution to Class Size Matters now!