Downtown Express file photo by Tequila Minsky

It may have seemed crowded entering P.S. 89 the first day of school in September, but the principal says kindergarten enrollment is up 84 percent for the coming school year.

84% jump in new students at P.S. 89; P.S. 234 swells

By Julie Shapiro

Principal Ronnie Najjar is an expert at squeezing new students into P.S. 89.

She cut classrooms in half, sacrificed a guidance suite and dismantled a computer lab — all to provide much-needed seats to the growing elementary school population.

But Najjar is running out of places to put students. And this fall, enrollment is likely to jump higher than ever before.

At this point in past years, Najjar had pre-registered between 50 and 63 kids. This year, she has pre-registered 103. Last year, 56 students had registered at this point, meaning Najjar is bracing for an 84 percent spike in new students.

“What we’re seeing this year is out of the ballpark,” Najjar said at a recent Community Board 1 meeting.

She and Lisa Ripperger, principal of P.S. 234, are coping with Downtown’s booming residential population, which translates into a booming elementary school population.

Over the long-term, some relief is on the way: Lower Manhattan has two new pre-K-to-8 schools in the pipeline. Officials hope the Beekman St. school near the Seaport and the Site 2B school in Battery Park City will open in 2010. But the much-needed school seats won’t come soon enough, the principals say.

When Najjar crunches the numbers for next year’s kindergarten class, she also needs to add in the 27 students in pre-K at P.S. 89, and another 10 students assigned to collaborative team teaching (C.T.T.), classes that integrate special education and general education students and typically have two teachers. Najjar expects to see a few cancellations before school starts, but she’ll also get some last-minute additions as new families move to the neighborhood over the summer. That means she’s looking at fitting 140 kindergarteners into four classrooms — not a situation that she or the parents would like. It would mean 35 students a class when the limit is supposed to be 25 for kindergartners under the union contract.

Even if Najjar finds room for two extra kindergarten classes, she’ll have a new problem next year when those 140 students move up to first grade and perhaps another 140 or more kindergarteners enter, as Downtown’s population continues to grow.

At P.S. 234 in Tribeca, Ripperger is also seeing higher enrollment numbers this year. Last year, she pre-registered 136 kindergarteners. As of this week, she has pre-registered 156 students and put another 22 students on hold. After she adds in C.T.T. students and late enrollees, she could easily see enrollment hit 200, she said.

This year, she has 147 kindergarteners, up from 126 the year before. But Ripperger has been able to keep classes small because the school eliminated pre-K and last fall opened a seven-classroom annex, adding 143 seats — the only new seats added below Canal St. in the past eight years. Kindergarten classes have 21 students this year, but Ripperger said she won’t be able to keep class sizes that low in future years, unless she gets more space.

“We’re out of rooms again,” she said.

Now, Ripperger is looking at closing the school’s science and art rooms. She will also cut classes from the upper grades, because it is more important to keep class size small for younger students, she said. It’s too soon to know what that will mean for class size in the upper grades, but Ripperger said the classes would be larger than 26 students.

“I don’t think there are any quick solutions, easy solutions, or certainly any inexpensive solutions,” Ripperger said.

Debra Wexler, a Department of Education spokesperson, released a statement saying that projected enrollment figures at the two Downtown schools — even though they nearly doubled this year at P.S. 89 — are consistent with current enrollment. “D.O.E. representatives have met with principals from both schools to discuss their anticipated kindergarten enrollments, based on pre-registration to date, and we are in the process of developing strategies to address their concerns,” Wexler said in a statement.

Ripperger and Najjar are considering parking trailers in the schoolyard, using empty space in other District 2 schools and renting commercial space.

Trailers can be tricky to arrange, Najjar said. Engineers have to do a feasibility report about the ground where the trailers will go, and the trailers also need connections to electricity and plumbing. Since the trailers must be placed on school property, they could take away space where children currently play, Najjar said.

Najjar would prefer to rent space near the school, either from an under-enrolled District 2 school or in a commercial building. Ripperger said she would prefer to keep the school community together — the student body is already split up between the annex and the main building, but at least everyone is on the same piece of property, she said.

“Trailers aren’t horrible,” said Eric Greenleaf, parent of first-grade twins at P.S. 234. “But it is a little embarrassing to say that with all the advance warning we have to start putting in trailers.”

Greenleaf chairs P.S. 234’s newly formed overcrowding committee. A professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, Greenleaf uses his statistics background to crunch numbers on Downtown’s rapid growth.

“The city has neglected to do something, so parents have to step in,” Greeneaf said.

In Manhattan below Chambers St., the number of housing units grew from 13,046 in 2000 to 28,613 this year, according to the Downtown Alliance. For every 10 new units of housing, the city should build at least one new elementary school seat, based on a formula from the City Environmental Quality Review technical manual. That means the city should have built at least 1,557 new elementary seats in Lower Manhattan in the past eight years. The city plans to add 1,592 seats by 2010, but some of those seats are for middle school students, and housing construction continues apace Downtown.

Since the Downtown Alliance’s numbers do not include most of Tribeca, Greenleaf added that the current deficit of seats is even higher.

The calculation also does not take into account the growing household size Downtown. In 2000, the average household size was 1.76 people, according to the Alliance. The average increased to 2.02 people in 2004 and 2.19 people as of last year.

The Downtown Little School, a preschool on Dutch St., receives more applications every year, said Meredith Gary, the school’s director. They have not changed their enrollment or added classes to accommodate more students.

“We’re pretty full, and I think everyone is pretty full,” Gary said.

The increase in applications this year might not necessarily be tied to the population increase, since parents are applying to more schools than they have in past years, Gary added. Parents see the admissions process as increasingly competitive, and apply to more schools to give their children a better chance, she said.

Ronnie Moskowitz, head of the Washington Market School, also is seeing a steady increase in applications. To shrink the application pool, she raised the minimum age for students from 18 months to 2 years old.

Moskowitz also sees more of her graduates going to the local public schools, because private schools are getting harder to get into. Washington Market School is a member of the Independent School Admission Association of Greater New York, a group of 127 nonprofit schools, mostly in Manhattan. The association saw applications jump between 20 and 30 percent this year. The effects trickled down to Washington Market, where Moskowitz said fewer of her students were accepted to private elementary schools.

“Many of our children whose parents hoped they would go to an independent school are now going to one of our public schools,” Moskowitz said.

To address the overcrowding problem, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver recently held a meeting for principals, parents and community leaders. He is forming an overcrowding taskforce to find solutions. Along the same vein, Community Board 1 passed a resolution Tuesday urging the city to fund both an interim and long-term overcrowding solution. The resolution, written by local parents, also advocates for keeping students Downtown and allowing schools to retain their gymnasiums and art and science rooms.

Claudia Bogdanos, who has three children at P.S. 89 and a fourth who will enter kindergarten in 2010, is concerned that class sizes at P.S. 89 will balloon over the next few years, preventing her children from getting one-on-one attention from their teachers.

The classrooms at P.S. 89 are big enough to physically fit 30 or 35 students, Bogdanos said. If the city cannot provide more classroom space, Bogdanos hopes it will at least provide more teachers. She envisions “floater” teachers, who would go from classroom to classroom, giving students extra attention to make up for the large class sizes.

Bogdanos sees irony in the current overcrowding problem.

“After Sept. 11, the city so concerned that Downtown would turn into a ghost town, and there were all these efforts to revitalize it,” Bogdanos said. “They did that quite well. Now there’s residential building after residential building, but they didn’t give any thought [to the schools].”

Borough President Scott Stringer released a report on school overcrowding this month, and Lower Manhattan was one of four neighborhoods he highlighted. Stringer is not impressed by the city’s plans to add new schools, including two in Lower Manhattan.

“The city is planning, at best, to relieve today’s overcrowding — but it is failing to plan for future growth and to reduce class size,” Stringer’s report says. “By the time the city spends five years plugging the existing hole in the dam, another one will have opened up.”

The Beekman St. school will add 630 elementary and middle seats and the Site 2B school will add 962, of which 100 will be special education.

“We are aware of the need for seats in Lower Manhattan and have reviewed demographics,” Wexler, of D.O.E., said in another statement. The D.O.E. plans to add more school seats to its next 5-year capital plan, but Wexler did not know whether any would be in C.B. 1 beyond the Beekman and Site 2B schools.

The Beekman St. school will get too small too fast, Najjar said. The 50 new seats per grade will barely relieve the enrollment pressure at P.S. 234, she said.

“You’re going to outgrow it in the blink of an eye,” Najjar said. “It’s shortsighted to think this is a good solution. I know what it’s like to be in a beautiful building and have to chip it away.”

“They’re a drop in the bucket,” Ripperger said of the new schools. “The people making planning decisions have not thought this through accurately and well.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers and a Battery Park City resident, said the city needs to take responsibility for planning ahead.

“It shouldn’t take a crystal ball to plan new schools to accommodate the obvious rapid growth in the construction of residential units in Manhattan,” Weingarten said in a statement to Downtown Express. “Many city agencies that must approve … new apartments, condominiums and co-ops are aware of the boom, so why are the folks at Department of Education and the School Construction Authority not in the loop? Perhaps school overcrowding has become so pervasive in the city that complaints about it are falling on deaf ears at those agencies.”

In Tribeca, the city sold parcels of land to developers for some of the residential tower projects inundating Downtown, so the city knew that the influx of students was coming.

“It’s not good urban planning, which is not necessarily the D.O.E.’s fault,” Najjar said. “Schools have been an afterthought, and to me that’s the crime in all this.”

With the education department slashing school budgets across the city, some parents are worried that the tighter financial circumstances will delay the new school construction.

Downtown’s kids don’t have the time to wait for the new schools, Greenleaf said. Kindergarten and first grade are key years for learning to read, and small classes make all the difference, he said.

“Every year is going to matter,” Greenleaf said. “They’re only in first grade once.”

Of getting new school seats, he added, “It has to be done and it has to be done soon.”






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