D.O.E. proposals rejected by Silver’s school overcrowding task force

[media-credit name="Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds " align="aligncenter" width="600"][/media-credit]
Battery Park City parent Matt Schneider turns to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver for support in lobbying the city Dept. of Education to solve Downtown’s school overcrowding crisis.

BY ALINE REYNOLDS  |  The city Department of Education’s proposed solutions to this year’s Downtown kindergarten wait lists were forcefully shot down by local parents and education activists at Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s Overcrowding Task Force early last week.

Overcrowding is still rampant in Downtown’s zoned elementary schools. The overall application count for seats in the schools has declined by a mere 13 since last year, and the number of students wait-listed at the schools for the 2012-13 school year has only dropped from 85 students to 81 students in recent weeks, according to Drew Patterson, director of the Manhattan South planning board for the city Department of Education. The D.O.E. expects to see further attrition once the families begin accepting offers to private schools and gifted-and-talented programs.

Specifically, the Department anticipates 40 to 45 wait-listed prospective kindergarteners to be granted seats at their zoned schools, which would leave the city scrambling to accommodate the remaining 40 or so students on the wait lists.

One possible solution is to open an additional kindergarten section at P.S. 276, Patterson said, which could accommodate all of the wait-listed students at the school but might require slashing at least one kindergarten section in future years and removing or relocating its pre-k program. Another option is to open a third kindergarten section at the Tweed Courthouse, which, once the new Peck Slip school incubates there in the fall, is currently slated to house two classes per grade.

But even the latter proposal has its complications. “If we were to add an additional section [at Tweed], it would require split-siting that school in year three and looking for an additional location for those sections,” said Patterson.

Task force members had qualms about these proposals. While some parents expressed concern about the D.O.E.’s proposal to expand kindergarten at P.S. 276 and elsewhere next year, others railed against cutting class sections down the road.

“I cannot reiterate enough the need to cap these schools,” said P.S. 234 parent Tricia Joyce, a member of the overcrowding task force. “Clearly, [P.S. 276] cannot sustain one more class — it needs to shrink in size.”

P.S. 276 principal Terri Ruyter cautioned that tacking on another kindergarten section at the school next year would cause a shortage of classrooms the following year.

“It’s a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” she said.

Tammy Meltzer, whose daughter attends P.S. 276, said the only appropriate solution is to find new space for the students. Reducing the number of kindergarten sections in future years, she said, is “completely untenable.”

Meltzer also said it’s entirely possible to divvy up the four large classrooms in the basement of the Tweed Courthouse (a proposal recently put forth by fellow members of Community Board 1 in order to free up additional classroom space for Downtown students). The Tweed classrooms had been partitioned while her child attended kindergarten there during P.S. 276’s incubation period.

“The sound level was fine… and I think kids were better behaved because they knew there were people on the other side [of the partition],” said Meltzer.

Eric Greenleaf, a business professor at NYU who has extensively studied Downtown school overcrowding, says that two new elementary schools are needed to address Downtown’s surge of elementary-aged children.

“Talking about a little bit of space here and a little bit of space there isn’t going to do it,” said Greenleaf. “If P.S. 276 takes even just four kindergarten classes next fall and Spruce takes in just three, [one less section in each school, respectively, than this year], that means those two schools will have no room left for 2013 kindergarteners, under very reasonable assumptions.”

No matter what the circumstances are, all Downtown parents should be able to send their children to the neighborhood’s zoned schools, according to Speaker Silver, who challenged the D.O.E. to come up with a more lasting solution to the wait lists.

“Short-term solutions we’re discussing shouldn’t cover up long-term, continuing overcrowding problems,” said Silver. “That effort must be joined by siting of lower elementary schools as soon as possible.”

Silver went on to express sympathy for Downtown parents who are eagerly awaiting news about placements for their children. “I hope we don’t have to go through [the wait list process] again until you’re waiting for a letter from Harvard for your children,” he said.

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