‘Systematic’ Crowding?

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At a high-energy meeting last week, representatives from District 3 elementary schools and members of the parent Community Education Council voiced their frustration about school overcrowding to representatives from the Department of Education.

Last year, parents clashed over a plan to move the Center School out of P.S. 199’s building to alleviate crowding (that controversial move took place over the summer). This year, parents seemed far more united in urging the department to create more space in the district and, in particular, in asking education officials to treat the situation as urgent.

“There’s only so much we can do by moving pieces on a chessboard as we did last year,” said the parent council’s chair, Noah Gotbaum. “We need elected officials and the DOE to work with us to address this acute situation district-wide. It’s not pocket overcrowding, it’s a systematic problem.

Gotbaum opened the Oct. 21 meeting, held at P.S. 76 on West 121st Street, by saying that district crowding had many sources, from the construction of new residential buildings to the economic downturn, which has caused families to turn to public schools, to uptown schools being elbowed out by charter schools.

P.S. 199: verging-on-overcrowded. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

P.S. 199: verging-on-overcrowded. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

John White, the department’s interim acting deputy chancellor for strategy and innovation, pointed to internal statistics on local schools, which indicate that district-wide there is only a small uptick of students, but that individual school enrollment has fluctuated widely.

“Across the district, enrollment is growing slightly,” White said. “But when you dig under this, enrollment in some schools is growing significantly. In others it’s shrinking significantly.”

White listed several potential, unofficial solutions, many of which he said would be “hard tradeoffs.” These included merging sister elementary schools P.S. 185 (serving grades K to 2 on West 112th Street) and P.S. 208 (serving grades 3 to 5 on West 111th Street), and re-evaluating the district’s kindergarten admissions process. He recommended creating new plans for the Harlem building that houses P.S. 241 and two charter schools, and for the lower part of the district, which includes three verging-on-overcrowded schools: P.S. 9, P.S. 199 and P.S. 87. Finally, White noted that the uneven distribution of English language learners and special education students should be adjusted.

But several parent council members said they felt the department’s numbers did not reflect reality at many neighborhood schools. The department’s estimate of a school’s capacity, they suggested, did not take into account the fact that many schools had lost rooms for art and music, cut back on gym time and had to serve lunch as early as 10 a.m., which has had an adverse effect on education. Members also said that vacancies in the district caused by phased-out schools or under-enrollment in special programs did not appear to free up any more spaces for young children, who are entering the schools in larger numbers.

State Sen. Bill Perkins, Assembly Members Linda Rosenthal and Daniel O’Donnell and Council Member Gale Brewer all attended the meeting, and largely supported the parents’ sense of urgency.

“You can’t fix a problem unless you acknowledge it’s there,” said O’Donnell, who sits on the Assembly’s education committee.

The parent council intends to convene a “war room” of concerned parents and public officials to lobby for change in time for the 2010-2011 school year. They hope to find “incubator space” for a new school.

Will Havemann, a spokesman for the department, said education officials are preparing for the next parent council meeting.

“We’re going to establish a set of discrete issues that we need to plan around by the next regular CEC meeting,” he said. “We are very committed, and it is a high priority to make sure we are responding to concerns of parents in this district.”

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