Push for Lower Lab Expansion to Avert Middle School Crowding

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By Dan Rivoli

While many Upper East Side families with kids on kindergarten waitlists are focused on where their children will land this fall, some East Siders are looking even farther ahead, several years in the future. That"s when the current glut of kindergartners will hit middle school, potentially creating another crowding crisis.

So P.S. 77 Lower Lab, a kindergarten-to-5th grade school on Third Avenue and East 96th Street, is pushing a plan to expand into middle school. Though the current building is too small for that kind of growth, the gifted and talented school, which shares a facility with P.S. 198, has proposed relocating to a bigger space on East 94th Street, between First and Second avenues. Lower Lab would then be able to take middle-school-aged students in its gifted and talented program. P.S. 198 could remain in the Third Avenue building and expand its gifted program, launching this September, or become a K-8 school.

“We see this as an opportunity to help with future or current overcrowding in the middle schools, said Tara Ryan, PTA co-president and a mother of two students at Lower Lab. “Those students are going to age out and need a middle school soon and we don"t have the capacity for those students right now.

But the Department of Education has repeatedly rebuffed the idea, saying that enough middle school seats have been created throughout the diverse district, which covers the East Side, West Village, Soho, Chinatown and lower Manhattan.

“While Lower Lab itself will remain K-5, we can help middle school students by adding seats anywhere in the district, which is exactly what we"ve done, said department spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld.

East Side Middle School, on East 91st Street, is expanding, and new middle school seats were added in Greenwich Village and Battery Park City.

But the demand for gifted and talented programs is growing in District 2. Of the roughly 1,500 district students entering kindergarten last year who took the gifted test, 44 percent were eligible for such programs, a four percent increase from last year, according to newly released statistics from the department.

Supporters of the Lower Lab expansion say that parents of gifted elementary students will want similar programs when their children become 6th, 7th and 8th graders. Currently, students interested in gifted middle school programs have to compete for spots at schools open to kids from across the city.

There would be something of a domino effect if Lower Lab were to expand. Parents could keep their kids in the district-priority gifted middle school instead of going to the Lab School for Collaborative Studies (a separate school from Lower Lab, often referred to as Upper Lab), East Side Middle School or Robert F. Wagner Middle School. That would open up seats at those schools for other students.

Assembly Member Micah Kellner, a frequent critic of the department, said that the city should take the opportunity to expand the number of seats on the Upper East Side.

“I don"t see parents in the East 80s and 90s sending their kids to school in Battery Park City, Kellner said. “The DOE will have to face reality that we are going to face a middle school crisis.