Volume 16 • Issue 17 | September 23 - 29, 2003

Principals say classes are overcrowded

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Frank Napolitano’s kindergarten class at P.S. 150 has 28 students, three over the union limit.

Many local children began public school this month in classrooms more crowded than ever, the result of a growing residential population in Lower Manhattan and a federal law that allows students to transfer out of failing schools.

Among the three local elementary schools, eight of the nine kindergarten classes have more than the standard 25 students per class. While many public schools citywide have similar or even higher numbers, few other communities anticipate the kind of residential explosion already underway in Lower Manhattan.

The federal No Child Left Behind law has contributed to the swelling ranks of local classrooms, particularly at I.S. 89 in Battery Park City. This law gives students in failing schools the right to transfer to more successful schools. Some have feared that the law, currently in its second year, will tax the resources of well-regarded schools like I.S. 89 and make it harder for neighborhood students to earn spots in local schools.
Kevin Osborne, an I.S. 89 parent who lives in Chelsea, said last week that he was monitoring the size of his son’s sixth grade class.

“As a parent, you don’t want it to be too crowded,” Osborne said.

His son, Griffin, 11, said there were 35 students in his class. This exceeds the standard of 33 students per middle school class, but Griffin said there were enough desks for all students.

Ellen Foote, the principal of I.S. 89, declined to comment for this article. She told The New York Times in a Sept. 10 article that the school was notified only a few days before classes started that it would receive many No Child Left Behind transfer students. The article did not state the number of students that came to I.S. 89 under the federal program, but sources told Downtown Express that it was between 10 and 15.

Foote addressed the Times article in a Sept. 15 letter to parents. She wrote that while sixth grade rosters had diminished from their initial high of 37 students, they remained larger than ever before. Foote said Schools Chancellor Joel Klein sent principals a memo on the Thursday before school started, stating that principals must accept all No Child Left Behind transfer students despite the potential for overcrowding. In addition, officials at the regional office said that it was unlikely that schools would receive additional resources to help with the influx, Foote added.

“If we turn students away it is not because we don’t want them, but because we want to keep our numbers reasonable, i.e., at the level contracted by the Teachers Union,” Foote wrote.

There is no state or city law that stipulates class sizes limits. But New York City’s powerful teacher’s union, the United Federation of Teachers, has class size limits written into its contract. They are as follows: pre-kindergarten classes should be held at 18 students with a teacher and a paraprofessional; kindergarten classes should have a maximum of 25 students per teacher; elementary school classes should not exceed 32; middle school classes should be capped at 33, and high school classes should have a maximum of 34.

Ron Davis, a spokesperson for the teachers’ union, said it is understood that “once you violate the terms of the contract, you have to do something that remedies the situation.” This could include hiring paraprofessionals to help in overcrowded classrooms or creating new classes, Davis said.

Margie Feinberg, a Department of Education spokesperson, said that class sizes rose at the beginning of every school year, since some parents and students register at the wrong school. Numbers would level off once students find their rightful seats by the end of registration on Oct. 31, Feinberg said.

Feinberg declined to answer specific questions about the administration of the No Child Left Behind law, saying the department would know more in the coming weeks. She also declined to comment as to whether Klein ordered Foote and other principals to accept No Child Left Behind students regardless of overcrowding concerns.

“It’s only the second year of the program, and we’ll get better with time,” Feinberg said. She dismissed Foote’s concerns, saying the department had already addressed Foote’s “plight.”

Neighborhood leaders are also concerned about the effects of the new law. “It’s more of a concern than we would have anticipated,” said Madelyn Wils, chairperson of Community Board 1, about No Child Left Behind.

The old School District 2, which includes local schools and is now part of Region 9, was filled to 83 percent of its capacity on Oct. 31, 2001, according to the Education Department’s most recent statistics. The most crowded district, at 111 percent capacity, was in Queens. The least crowded district in the city was the old District 1, including the East Village and the Lower East Side, which was 64 percent filled.

When the new figures on school capacity are released next month, the numbers will likely tell a different story for local schools. At P.S. 234 alone, enrollment has jumped by 10 percent this year. Last year, the school had 640 students, and this year it has 705, Sandy Bridges, P.S. 234’s principal, said last week. The school has a capacity of 585.

“It’s too many, but we’re able to manage,” Bridges said.

P.S. 234 received only two children under the No Child Left Behind law, Bridges said, adding that the region responded to her plea that the school could not accommodate any more children.

Bridges and local parents are concerned that the crowding will only get worse. The population of Lower Manhattan is expected to balloon over the next several years, with at least 8,173 new residential units currently in development south of Canal St.

P.S. 234 consistently ranks among the top schools citywide on standardized test scores and has a reputation to match. But the school’s tight squeeze has already caused some nursery school parents to look elsewhere. P.S. 234’s five kindergarten classes have between 26 and 28 students, Bridges said. In the fifth grade, two classes have 35 students and the other has 34, she added.

Ellen Offen, educational director of The Park Preschool in Tribeca, said that a mother of a 3-year-old girl originally told her she planned to send her daughter to P.S. 234, where her son attends. But the mother recently approached Offen and asked whether it was too late to register her daughter for the E.R.B., a test given for admittance to private schools. The overcrowding at P.S. 234 made her reconsider sending her daughter there, Offen said. Offen added that last year she had five students register for the E.R.B., while this year she has nine.

Ronnie Najjar, principal of P.S. 89 in Battery Park City, said she did not anticipate that Lower Manhattan’s housing boom will affect her school as much as P.S. 234. The latter has many homeowners in its zoned area, while Battery Park City has a more transient population of renters, Najjar explained.

“I find there’s enough comings and goings that it always works out,” Najjar said.

Even so, Najjar said that the school’s kindergarten classes were larger than the union limit, with 25, 26, and 27 students in the three classes. This has caused concern to spread among P.S. 89 parents.

“It’s starting to become a problem and it will grow into a bigger problem if not addressed in the early stages,” said Karen Gibbs, a Battery Park City resident and a mother of a kindergarten girl at P.S. 89.

Najjar declined to say the exact number of students P.S. 89 received under the No Child Left Behind program, but said that it was less than five. Alyssa Polack, principal of the tiny P.S. 150 in Tribeca, said that her school received four children under the program, a number she had anticipated. Polack said that her one kindergarten class has 28 students, over the limit, but about the same as last year.

Community leaders and parents say they hope the city will build new schools in Lower Manhattan to alleviate the area’s overcrowding problem. In November, the School Construction Authority will release its five-year capital plan with projections for new school construction. School officials would not comment last week on whether they planned to build any new schools in Lower Manhattan.

Susan Kushner, a Battery Park City resident and the mother of a kindergarten girl at P.S. 89, said she did not feel that enough was being done to address current and expected overcrowding in area schools. There are 27 students in her daughter’s class, Kushner said, and she appeared to be doing fine partly thanks to a highly capable teacher.

Even so, there’s more potential for things to go wrong with such a big class, Kushner said, adding she hoped that teachers and parents could work together to remedy the situation.

“What if two children have a meltdown at the same time,” Kushner asked. “It really comes down to how many 5-year-olds you can you have in one room with one adult and have it be emotionally safe and have something educational going on.”



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