About Face for DOE: District 3 Needs New School

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After desperate parents, elected officials and the Department of Education convened a “war room” to deal with District 3 crowding, the city has agreed to create a new school on the Upper West Side. This marks a significant turnaround for the Department of Education, and a victory for parents who have been pleading with education officials to acknowledge that the neighborhood building and baby booms have created a dire need for new elementary seats.

The problem has been acute in the southern part of District 3, where massive building projects have led to overcrowding at P.S. 199 and P.S. 87, in particular.

“There are more zoned students than there are seats because students largely choose to go to their zoned school,” said Elizabeth Rose, a representative from the department’s office of portfolio planning, at a Jan. 20 Community Education Council meeting. She credited the work of parents who “spent an enormous amount of time gathering data” in changing the department’s strategy.

“At the end, I think we called ‘uncle,’” Rose joked at the meeting. “I don’t think anyone thought we would be here announcing a new school in this area at this time.”

As recently as Dec. 16, the department was backing a two-year capital budget for the district that included no new seats or construction for new capacity. Although education officials agreed that schools were strained by crowding, they believed the problem could be alleviated through adjustments like rezoning.

Now, the city is planning to open a new elementary school in fall 2010 with three kindergarten classes, totaling 75 students. It will be housed in the I.S. 44 building, on West 77th Street, along with the Anderson School and the Computer School. As the new school grows over the next six years, it will end up with 450 elementary school seats.

To create space, though, Rose said the community now faces a “painful set of decisions.” The department will be relocating a new middle school, West Prep, within a few years, and the Anderson School, a citywide gifted school, will reduce its enrollment from three classes (or “sections”) a year back down to two.

In the new enrollment process, there will be no district-wide kindergarten lottery for the most overcrowded schools, which are filled largely from their own catchment zones. Enrollment priorities at zoned schools will first go to students in the catchment area who have a sibling at the school; then zoned students who don’t have older siblings at the school; and finally to out-of-zone students from District 3 who have a sibling at the school. The new process, which would give catchment students priority over non-catchment siblings, will be “reaffirming the chancellor’s regulations on enrollment priorities,” Rose said.

The new school’s zone could be determined in one of three ways: The city could draw a new permanent catchment zone between P.S. 87 and P.S. 199; it could allow families zoned for P.S. 87 the chance to choose this new school first; or it could allow the new school to be filled with the overflow from families who do not get into P.S. 87 or P.S. 199.

At P.S. 199 and P.S. 87, six kindergarten classes will be maintained, the most either overcrowded school can handle.

Rose stressed that no changes, other than the decision to create a new school, have been set in stone. After the first year under this new plan, Rose said, “We will need to monitor kindergarten enrollment carefully,” to see how it works, particularly after the next round of kindergarten intake in February.

At the meeting, members of the public and the parent council expressed gratitude to the department for taking this step.

“One of the things we have achieved in the war room, working with the borough president, working with the DOE is that [the department is] no longer determining unilaterally how many kids can fit,” said Noah Gotbaum, chair of the parent council.

Still, many worried that the plan didn’t go far enough. Several parent council members said they felt the new school was a stop-gap measure, and that the same crowding problems would crop up in a few years.

“We definitely gain from a three-classroom school,” said Helen Rosenthal, co-chair of Community Board 7’s education committee, which has been looking at District 3 data. “However, data shows we really need a six-classroom school.”

Others clamored for the department to purchase real estate, worried that a space shuffle would not be enough to solve the problem.

“We need to push the DOE to find or build new space to at least double the new school’s size,” Gotbaum said. “Otherwise, just about every elementary school in the southern portion of the district will be over-enrolled within 12 to 24 months.”

Looking a few more years down the road, he added, “And middle school overcrowding is following closely on the heels of this as our elementary kids move up.”

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