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BY Tricia Joyce | State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Task Force on School Overcrowding convened for its monthly meeting as usual in April. What wasn’t “usual” about this meeting was that the NYC Department of Education released a “briefing” that stands to change the way the city’s public schools are zoned forever.
This news was tucked away inside their “Building on Success: Five Year Capital Plan; Fiscal Years 2010-2014, April 2011 amendment.” The Capital Plan, it should be noted, contains school construction plans that the D.O.E. issues in conjunction with the School Construction Authority, outlining the schools that the administration is planning to add over the five years to come.
What has never been clear, at least to me anyway, is the methodology that the D.O.E. uses for these plans. Having been involved in Downtown overcrowding issues now for the last three years, it has become more clear that the “methodology” they use is less based on factual data (they claim they use the same sources that Task Force member and P.S. 234 Parent Eric Greenleaf does, and yet the numbers are always quite different), and more on theoretical frameworks that are difficult to identify and even more difficult to quantify.
The plan calls for our neighborhoods to be “redefined,” dividing Downtown in half at Broadway, and extending north on each side to a blurred line around 14th St . West of Broadway this will now be called “Tribeca/Village/Lower Manhattan West;” and, to the East, “Chinatown/Lower Manhattan East.” They claimed that by extending boundaries, pockets of under-enrollment could offset pockets of over-enrollment. Or in other words, they were hoping that, by moving the lines north and east, the neighboring school districts could absorb our burgeoning population Downtown — a population we estimate is growing so fast that more than 1400 new seats are needed in the next few years. This plan was shocking to many of us. This division would permanently fracture the communities we have so thoughtfully built and nurtured around our neighborhood zoned schools. It would also create considerable hardship for families that would now need to commute much farther to their children’s school outside of the neighborhood. Furthermore, we also suspected that these neighboring district schools, where the D.O.E. claimed there was plenty of space, were already full.
I decided more specific information was needed to refute this “plan” and went and spoke to each of the schools in these neighborhood community districts. As expected, every school was already at or over capacity.
P.S. 41: West Village: Waitlist was 48; six and seven classrooms in first and second grades, when their capacity is five; about half of their wait list has been assigned to P.S. 11, further north, and about half sent to P.S. 3, farther south.
P.S. 3: West Village: Greenwich Village middle school moved out of their building last year due to overcrowding, so they absorbed about half of P.S. 41’s wait list, pushing themselves over longterm capacity in doing so.
P.S. 1: Chinatown: At capacity with an out-of-zone wait list. Considerable end-of-summer enrollment to come.
P.S. 124: Chinatown: Waitlist: 26; considerable end-of-summer enrollment to come.
P.S. 130: Chinatown: Waitlist: 11 in-zone siblings and 5 out-of-zone siblings.
P.S. 42: Lower East Side: At capacity; significant end-of-summer enrollment each.
P.S. 2: Lower East Side: Waitlist: 50 in-zone, 25 out-of-zone. The school is already overenrolled by 15 students.
Add this to our statistics Downtown:
Spruce Street school (P.S. 397): Four kindergarten classes, when capacity is two.
P.S. 276: Four kindergarten classes, when capacity is three.
P.S. 234: Waitlist of 21; which the D.O.E. has proposed sending to P.S. 130 in Chinatown (see previous, they already have a waitlist); six first grade classes and seven second grade classes, when capacity is five.
P.S. 89: At capacity, with over 30 students in some fourth grade classes.
Clearly, no attrition, Gifted and Talented acceptances, or families’ choice of private school could possibly offset the massive number of students expected downtown with only two small schools planned between now and 2017. The Peck Slip School opening in 2015 near the South Street Seaport, at 476 seats. It is supposed to have only two classes a grade, or 50 students, which we could already fill with this year’s kindergarten student surplus Downtown, as shown by the numbers above. The Foundling School at 6th Ave. and 19th St., meanwhile, won’t open until 2016-17, at 518 seats, and would also have only two classes per grade.
When questioned about this at the following meeting in May, NYC Schools Dennis Chancellor Walcott explained that he would look into our situation, but that he wanted to remind us that there was overcrowding all over the city — which certainly is true. There are kindergarten waitlists in 25 percent of our city schools this year because of a lack of building. The question is, why? Our neighborhood alone created one of the biggest windfalls ever for the city with our post-9/11 residential building: Downtown has 18,500 new homes that are generating billions of dollars in new tax revenue for the city. Where is the money? All of today’s overcrowding could have been easily avoided with a couple of good-sized elementary schools. The 1500 seats needed would cost only an estimated $150-to-$200 million. This question has yet to be answered, but one thing is for certain: we are in a very serious public school seating crisis.
Extending our zoning lines will certainly not be the answer.
It’s time again to ask this administration why they refuse to build public schools concurrent with residential building while simultaneously opening charter schools all over the city. (Recently, in the form of a charter middle school at the Tweed Courthouse, against the wishes of the entire Downtown community and all of our elected officials). While the discussion of charter schools is something that could be fully debated at another time, it doesn’t make any sense at all to starve our successful elementary public schools of resources while opening unproven charter schools instead. In our case, it could derail all of the work of this post-9/11 generation, forcing families to leave the community because they have no elementary school seat for their child. Along with them may just go the accompanying businesses, real estate developments and values, and programs that served them — not exactly the legacy Mayor Mike Bloomberg planned to leave behind, but exactly what he will experience if nothing is done (and it needs to be done fast).
We hear Conde Nast is moving their entire operation to the World Trade Center. I hope they don’t have any children they plan on sending to school here; the families that are just about to move into the newly-minted, 900-unit Beekman Tower are already in line ahead of them for seats.