NO ROOM TO LEARN

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SPACE IS RUNNING OUT IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS-WHAT IS THE CITY’S PLAN FOR THE FUTURE?
By Dan Rivoli

Children swarmed out of P.S. 290 Manhattan New School on the sunny afternoon of Sept. 8, shaded by scaffolding only feet above parents’ heads.
“They’re building for a long time,” said Anastasia Khusanou, whose son is in the 2nd grade.
“A year,” her son’s classmate chimes in.
The project currently underway concerns windows-but many wish it would add classrooms instead. The school, housed in a turn-of-the-century building on East 82nd Street near Second Avenue, was started with 125 students in 1994 and has swelled to more than 600: partly because a nearby school, P.S. 151, closed in 2000. The allure of talented teachers and administrators has also been a big draw for families who might otherwise have gone private. But much of the blame probably falls on new developments that have sprung up nearby in the past several years, bringing in more children than the school can handle.

Scott Stringer at a Sept. 5 press conference. His new report about school crowding found that between 2000 and 2007, up to 1,600 new students were added to Community Boards 6, 7 and 8 without any additional school seating. Photo By: Andrew Schwartz

Scott Stringer at a Sept. 5 press conference. His new report about school crowding found that between 2000 and 2007, up to 1,600 new students were added to Community Boards 6, 7 and 8 without any additional school seating. Photo By: Andrew Schwartz

The city has designated P.S. 290-as well as 12 other public schools within the borders of community boards 6, 7 and 8-as overcrowded. Parent-funded teaching assistants shoulder some of the burden in large classrooms, but they can be cut if the money runs dry.
“We’re asked to pay for a teaching assistant fund,” said parent Cat Gannon, who has a daughter at P.S. 290. “There’s a lot of pressure on us to pay. Not many can afford it.”

Scott Stringer at a Sept. 5 press conference. His new report about school crowding found that between 2000 and 2007, up to 1,600 new students were added to Community Boards 6, 7 and 8 without any additional school seating.
Photo By: Andrew Schwartz

While administration and teachers were praised for making do with less, parents are also aware of what’s lost from educational programming when space becomes scarce.
“The art room is so tiny,” said parent Rebecca Clark. “They rarely are allowed to paint.”
The lack of a real auditorium is another factor that has affected students’ arts education, Clark added.
“As a lover of the arts it’s difficult to deal with,” she said. “There’s no room to put on plays.”
The city says it can deal with overcrowding and will make improvements in the next five-year capital plan, which outlines big facility projects like new school seats. But critics wonder whether enough is being done, and a new report from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer highlights problems in districts that aren’t as a whole considered in need of new seats-like the Upper West Side-but which have clear pockets of crowding.

It’s hard to miss the condominiums that are sprouting up around the city, particularly on the Upper East and West Sides-or the glossy marketing campaigns for these buildings that are geared toward families.
Sparked by parent complaints, Stringer began looking at the numbers of new developments versus public school space earlier this year. His first report on school crowding, released in April, compared the number of apartment units created to the number of new students in each community board district. An updated version of this first report was released Sept. 5.
Between 2000 and 2007, the report estimated that up to 1,600 new students were added to Community Boards 6 and 8 on the East Side, and Board 7 on the West Side, without any additional school seating.
“You can’t continue building high rises without doing proper planning for schools,” Stringer said at the press conference, flanked by several other elected officials. “Building permits are flying out the door, and we need to plan around it.”

While acknowledging that the city’s capital plan will direct money at overcrowded schools, Stringer’s report says more aggressive action is needed, especially with the amount of residential growth in the borough.
But the Department of Education already has some of the tools in place to address crowding, according to Jeff Shear, chief of staff to the deputy chancellor. Shear, who noted in an interview the planned addition of 5,000 seats in District 2, said that crowding can be alleviated through restructuring.

“Are there kids in a particular school who are attending from outside of the school zone or district? Are there nearby schools that are underutilized? There might be other ways to address the overcrowding,” Shear said.

In February, the department’s capital plan was amended to include 39 projects to expand capacity, with a goal of adding 25,000 seats in overcrowded school districts, thanks to $6.5 billion of state funding. With this money, the Murray Hill-Gramercy Park area will receive 1,010 seats between 2008 and 2012, and the Upper East Side will get 544, according to Stringer’s report. The Upper West Side, however, is not slated to get any more school seats-even though 1,093 new dwelling units were added since the beginning of 2008.
Part of the problem is that there’s no requirement that residential developments include new schools.
“Right now, you can build 20 new buildings, and there’s no provision for a school,” said West Side Council Member Gale Brewer. “It all has to be negotiated individually.”

P.S 290 parent Rebecca Clark, with her daughter, said she is worried that arts education is getting squeezed because of school crowding. Photo By: Dan Rivoli

P.S 290 parent Rebecca Clark, with her daughter, said she is worried that arts education is getting squeezed because of school crowding. Photo By: Dan Rivoli

Communities have to be lucky enough to have elected officials and other local leaders who are paying attention to new projects-and who can then work with developers to discuss the inclusion of education space. Sometimes it’s easier to get schools included in larger projects that go through the community board and City Council review and approval process, as a concession to ease local opposition. This is exactly what happened with the 9.8-acre East River Realty project south of the United Nations, which will include a K-8 school. Officials hope they can repeat the success with Extell’s project on Riverside South, which stretches south from West 72nd Street.
Extell is seriously considering an elementary school, according to company spokesman George Arzt, but negotiations are far from being finalized. However, he said that Extell would construct the school’s basic structure.

The other part of the problem, many critics say, is that the department is using an inaccurate metric to measure crowded schools. For example, if there is a pocket of overcrowded schools within a district that is under capacity, funds will be diverted to other districts in need of new school seats. This is the case on the West Side, which is not officially “overcrowded,” but it has several schools that are filled beyond capacity.
P.S. 9, on West 84th Street near Columbus Avenue, is 184 seats over capacity-although parents don’t seem to be too concerned about it, based on a handful of recent interviews.
“I understand that the classes have been pretty large, but there are a lot of adults in each class,” said parent John Lee.
There is, however, a concern that there will be an influx of new students in the future when nearby condominiums are complete.
East Side Council Member Jessica Lappin thinks it would make more sense to examine crowding within smaller boundaries than school districts. On the West Side, District 3 runs from West 59th to 122nd streets, while District 2 covers includes most of lower Manhattan, the Village, Midtown, Chelsea and the Upper East Side.
“The pockets of neighborhoods are different with the [School] district,” she said. “If you take it to a community board level, you have a much greater handle on schools.”
Community Board 8, for example, only covers East 59th to 96th streets.
An overarching question to all of this is about money: once the city figures out how many new seats are needed, can it afford to create them?
As the department drafts the budget for its next capital plan, Council Member Robert Jackson, chair of the Education Committee, said the plan must state how much money will be needed to solve overcrowding.
In the coming weeks, Council committees will hold hearings on the plan. And the final product, the Council Member said, must note the cost of providing every child with a seat to end crowding.
“If we need to bond out the money, then let’s do that,” Jackson said. “Tell us, the public, the parents, how much it’s going to cost.”

SUMMERTIME, AND THE READING’S EASY-OR AT LEAST IT USED TO BE:
I was going to rail against summer reading homework. I thought I’d complain about the school’s tentacle-like reach into our homes. The way assignments spoil the free-form pace of summer, leaving little wiggle room for boredom, the space in which new ideas flourish.
Assigning books is a far cry from my childhood summer reading days, when I’d crawl into the apple tree with a box of thin mints and Little Women until my mother made me climb down to set the table for dinner.
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