Volume 23, Number 5 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 11 - 17, 2010
As school year ends, overcrowding for next year still hot topic
BY Michael Mandelkern
Since 9/11, Lower Manhattan has been the most rapidly developing area in Manhattan, as an abundance of families are moving into the sprouting high-rise complexes. The result is a Downtown baby boom that P.S. 234 can no longer contain.
Following two new elementary schools, rezoning, political pressure and an added kindergarten class to P.S. 234, some parents hoping to enroll their children in the school in the fall are still uncertain of whether their kids will graduate with P.S. 234’s class of 2016 or attend a different elementary school.
As recently as four years ago, parents had little to no doubt that their children would be granted a kindergarten seat, but an acceptance letter is no longer something to be taken for granted. There were 67 children on the P.S. 234 waiting list in late-March and the elementary school decided to add one more 25-person kindergarten class in mid-May.
In the past couple of months, according to Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld, deputy press secretary for the New York City Department of Education, some families have chosen to move or enroll their children in private or parochial schools. This trend has reduced the waitlist to 21 as of May 21; seven were offered seats at P.S. 276; four to P.S. 3; and 10 to P.S. 397.
P.S. 276 will have a full classroom set-up by the fall. Both P.S. 397 and P.S. 276 have had one kindergarten class in the Tweed Courthouse in City Hall. P.S. 397 will remain there for another year.
Out of the four families invited to P.S. 3, two accepted the offer while the other two were given a seat at P.S. 234. Three other families also on the waitlist were accepted into P.S. 234 as well, leaving 14 more children on the waitlist, according to the Downtown Express’ numbers. The waitlist extends through October 2010.
Those on the P.S. 234 waitlist are offered an alternate school based on the family’s zip code and the availability of school space space.
“Principals know the nooks and crannies of their school best,” Zarin-Rosenfeld said.
Raquel Keating, school secretary of P.S. 3, said the addition of two more children “is not really going to impact our class size,” which ranges from 18 to 23 kids. The Dept. of Ed. determines classroom proportions based on a set child-to-square foot ratio.
While some children are still anticipating an acceptance letter, other parents found out their status very recently. Sheila Cain, whose son was the 50th prospective kindergarten student on the waitlist, was informed her child was accepted into P.S. 234 on May 27.
These short-term solutions have been squeezed in this year but Eric Greenleaf, a marketing professor at the New York University Stern School of Business who analyzes data on population growth trends within Community District 1, is more concerned about the long run.
“There’s a good chance we’re above 1,000 now because so many people are moving in, so we have more kids,” he said. “The only solution is to build two more elementary schools,” asserted Greenleaf.
His assessment is based on the amount of newly built apartment complexes and residential buildings converted from old warehouses and childbirths per year - 565 children were born in the area in 2003 and 881 in 2008.
According to Greenleaf, there is a shortage of roughly 1,000 to 1,400 classroom seats in Lower Manhattan. If no action is taken over the next five years P.S. 234 “would be completely overcrowded and a complete disaster,” he said.
New York State Senator Daniel Squadron, who represents Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, is proposing a bill in the Legislature that would require the Dept. of Ed. to make population projections further in advance, take the public’s opinion into greater consideration and create more transparency.
“The fact is, we need more planning. We can’t let that happen again,” said Squadron in reference to the school overcrowding situation in Lower Manhattan.
Squadron said he is frustrated that even after rezoning the area earlier this year, which was intended to relieve the abundance of children seeking enrollment into P.S. 234. Tribeca parents are still applying to the school through a lottery.
“It’s not ideal, but it will work,” he said, while stressing that settling for a lower quality of education with greater class sizes is not acceptable. “We can’t compromise kids’ education,” asserted Squadron.
The elementary school is known for having a strong staff, an engaging curriculum and being community and parent-oriented. Last year, P.S. 234 ranked ninth citywide amongst elementary schools and 99.1% of its students achieved either a 3 or 4 on standardized tests, the two highest levels.
P.S. 234 might have to make some adjustments to accommodate its growing class sizes. The school may have to turn its art and science rooms into classrooms and put those resources on a cart and wheel them over to the Manhattan Youth Community Center next door.
New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, like Squadron, has been confronting the issue in Albany. “As more and more families wisely choose to make Lower Manhattan their home, I have made it a top priority to ensure that all our children have access to quality schools with small class sizes,” wrote Silver via e-mail. “Providing quality educational opportunities is a key component in creating the vibrant, 24/7 community that all of downtown deserves.”
Although the additional kindergarten class could exacerbate overcrowding problems for the first grade class next year, “It is too early to speculate,” wrote Zarin-Rosenfeld via e-mail. He noted, however, that P.S. 234 will limit first grade enrollment.
Silver recently formed a School Overcrowding Task Force, which, alongside PTA members and the principals of P.S. 89 and P.S. 234, seeks out short-term solutions to adequately accommodate the recent mass influx of children in Lower Manhattan.
As part of his task force, Silver strove to bring P.S. 276 and P.S. 397 into new buildings this fall to create more space. “I am also continuing to press the federal government to sell the Peck Slip Post Office to the Department of Education to convert into another new school,” wrote Silver.
“It’s a great possibility,” commented District 1 New York City Council Member Margaret Chin. “The search is on [for a new school].”
The School Construction Authority, an independent organization under the Dept. of Ed., focuses on constructing new educational facilities across the city to counter overcrowding by pursuing leases for schools and collaborating with the private sector to incorporate classrooms into commercial buildings.
The SCA seeks to place a new school atop the Peck Slip Post Office, located in the Financial District. The plan “depends on dealings with the [United States Postal Service] and specific contours of the building,” noted Zarin-Rosenfeld, emphasizing that this early in the negotiation process it would be premature to assume which grades a school would serve.
Kevin Doherty, first vice president of the Parent Teacher Association at P.S. 234 and three-time former president, believes more emphasis has been placed on the mass construction of condominiums and lofts Downtown because developers were given great latitude after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“But the government needs to continue to build schools Downtown. We’re not at the apex [of childbirths] yet,” he said.
Chin attributes the population problem to short-sighted real estate developers.
“They’re using our schools Downtown to market [their properties] but they need to take that into consideration,” she said in reference to attracting families to Lower Manhattan as a pleasant place to raise their children without building enough schools for them.
Doherty has heard a range of reactions from parents who could not send their children to P.S. 234, including the notion that kids in the neighborhood who have friends at P.S. 234 but do not attend the school themselves could be disheartened.
“It’s hard for a lot of people for different reasons,” he said.
He does believe, however, that other parents are open to enrolling their children in P.S. 276 and P.S. 397. “They’re both very dynamic educators,” he said in reference to the two schools’ principals.
“The city’s been taking into account the needs of the community,” said Jake Itzkowitz, director of communications and legislative affairs for Chin. He emphasized that Chin met with the Dept. of Ed. and parents with children still on the P.S. 234 waitlist three weeks ago.
He believes the northwestern section of Tribeca is in need of a school for the child population and that even if the Dept. of Ed. were to purchase the space atop the Peck Slip Post Office they would have a long commute. Having a school closer to Tribeca “would be ideal,” Itzkowitz said, adding that obtaining class space at all is her top priority.
Chin is optimistic that once P.S. 234 opens in September more seats will be available. For the future, however, she is focused on the money allocated to her budget that she says will purchase a new school “as quickly as possible,” which she believes should be built within close proximity to P.S. 234 since that school zone is facing the most overcrowding. Chin originally pushed for a school in the Whole Foods building of Warren and Greenwich Streets but the plan fell through.
“It’s a complicated problem,” she said, but remains optimistic that P.S. 234’s quality of education will remain high.
“We just hope things will work out,” she said. “They need to be in smaller class sizes. We need to continue to fight for that. There are some very active parents down here and we will continue to advocate.”