Volume 20, Number 47 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 6 - April 12, 2011
School progress provides breather, but still not enough
BY Eric Greenleaf
The past year’s progress in alleviating school overcrowding gave Downtown a breather, but also time to consider how much work remains. Even as P.S. 276 and P.S. 397 celebrated their first birthdays last September, it was increasingly apparent that these two new schools were not enough to accommodate Downtown’s rapid growth. All the area’s schools together can take 350 kindergartners each year, but more than 400 kindergarteners enrolled. To avoid turning kids away, each new school admitted an extra kindergarten beyond capacity, along with an extra in P.S. 234. There was plenty of evidence that this shortage would get much worse. New York City data released in the last days of 2010 showed Downtown births increasing 46 percent between 2005 to 2009, suggesting that, by 2014, room would be needed for more than 580 kindergarteners, an amazing 230 seats above present capacity.
Downtown parents and elected officials worked to convince the N.Y.C. Department of Education that a new school was needed, along with keeping the six Tweed classrooms as interim space after P.S. 276 and P.S. 397 moved out to their permanent homes. This message was repeated at Parent Teacher Association meetings, in the local press, and at Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s Overcrowding Task Force, one of which was attended by N.Y.C. Schools Chancellor Cathie Black. We thank the chancellor and the D.O.E.’s enrollment planners for listening and, last spring, a new Downtown school was funded. When finding a site for the school became difficult, our elected officials in New York and Washington helped convince the federal government to sell to the city the Peck Slip post office, on the north edge of the Seaport. A few weeks ago, the D.O.E. announced that a 476-seat elementary school would start in the six Tweed classrooms in Fall 2012, and move to Peck Slip in 2015. Keeping the Tweed space was recognition that existing Downtown schools didn’t have room, even temporarily, for the kids who will eventually attend Peck Slip.
All good progress, but basic data from the city show that more schools – plural fully intended - are still needed to avoid serious overcrowding, and that the much appreciated Tweed classrooms are not enough to house all the kids until these new schools open. What are the details? Even if the overflow is temporarily put in the classrooms available for a few years in P.S. 276 and P.S. 397 until these schools have their full set of grades; even if the D.O.E. implements its controversial plan to delay the promised I.S. 397 middle school until 2015, and instead use the space for elementary classes; and even with Tweed, we will still be about 120 seats short in 2013. In fall 2014, there won’t be room in P.S. 276 or P.S. 397 for any of their incoming kindergarteners, as the shortage increases to 390. The D.O.E. needs to plan now to secure interim space ready by 2013. Even more disconcerting, by the time Peck Slip opens in 2015, overcrowding will be so extreme that returning all schools to their planned capacities and making room for I.S. 397 would take more space than Peck Slip will have, which means Peck Slip will be entirely filled the year it opens, and there still will be more than one hundred Downtown kids with no place to go to kindergarten, and hundreds more by 2016. Peck Slip helps, but the prognosis is still bleak without more schools.
How many more elementary seats does Downtown still need? Including Peck Slip, Downtown’s schools will be able to admit about 410 kindergarteners each year, but 630 new kindergarteners are likely to enroll in 2015. Alleviating this shortage of 220 seats each year for the six elementary years, and adding much-needed capacity for District 75 children with special needs, means building more than 1400 more new elementary seats, or about two good-sized schools. It takes at least three or four years to design and build a school, and the Peck Slip experience reminds us that school sites are difficult to find in Downtown Manhattan. The D.O.E. needs to fund these new schools and identify sites for them as soon as possible.
Downtown’s post-9/11 renaissance would not have happened without the many young people and families who have decided to live and work here as their kids grow up instead of moving to the suburbs. Surveys conducted by the Downtown Alliance confirm that more and more families are attracted to Downtown’s schools, and want to stay here. Downtown now has well more than 60,000 inhabitants, large enough to require those 630 kindergarten seats each and every year for the foreseeable future. More than thirty billion dollars have been invested Downtown in the past decade, but if families worry that school overcrowding endangers their kids’ education, people will stop moving here, families that are here will leave, and Downtown’s renaissance will end.
Eric Greenleaf serves on Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s School Overcrowding Task Force, is a member of the P.S. 234 P.T.A. and is a Professor of Marketing at the Stern School of Business at New York University.
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