City: P.S. 89 building has room, classes are crowded

By Skye H. McFarlane

The letter came at the end of the school year, telling the parents at P.S. 89 about an impossible choice. To accommodate a flood of incoming kindergarteners, the administration had decided to sacrifice a fourth-grade classroom.

The resulting fourth-grade classes had 32 and 34 students – numbers that put the high-scoring elementary school on the top of a decidedly undesirable list. Based on an analysis by Downtown Express of the Department of Educationxs K-8 class size data, released on a school-by-school basis for the first time this year, the 34-student class at P.S. 89 is the third most crowded fourth grade class in the entire city. It ranks in the top 20 of all general education classes and the top 40 of all classes in any grade, K-8, citywide. In addition, the class of 32 (which the D.O.E. lists officially as having 31 students), ties for second place among classes of its type – those with some special education students and a team of teachers.

The new data shines a harsh spotlight on an overcrowding problem that P.S. 89 parents say has been growing for years. Until now, most of the attention on Downtown’s school overcrowding problem has focused on Tribeca’s P.S. 234, which has a more crowded building but less acute class-size problems. A slew of residential towers have opened within the past few years and by 2008, at least 500 more units will come on line in Battery Park City. The same amenities that continue to draw families to the neighborhood – uncluttered sidewalks, pristine parks and a zoned public school with experienced teachers, top-notch facilities and high test scores – now appear to be threatened by their own popularity.

"There’s an opportunity for such an amazing school," said Courtney Brennan, who has two sons at P.S. 89. But we are also in jeopardy of losing what everyone has worked so hard to build.

For Brennan, the last summer’s letter was deeply troubling. While her younger son would join a smaller kindergarten class, her older son was entering the fourth grade – a year in which students take statewide English Language Arts and Math Assessment exams. The exams are a significant factor in qualifying students for the best middle schools, which can, in turn, help pupils gain admission to elite secondary schools like B.P.C.’s own Stuyvesant High School.

At first, Brennan said, the situation seemed bearable. A second certified teacher was brought in to assist the 34-student class. Though her son complained about a loss of personal space, he still appeared to be getting some individual instruction. However, the second teacher recently went on maternity leave and no replacement has been found.

He says to me, "Mom, it’s never going to be the same as last year, and it breaks my heart," Brennan said. "They’re kids; they need attention, reinforcement. They need to feel they can ask a question and there’s someone there to answer it."

Large-scale studies in Tennessee and Wisconsin have supported Brennan’s point, linking lower class size to higher achievement on standardized tests as well as improved classroom discipline and better teacher retention rates.

Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters, a local advocacy group that fights for smaller classes citywide, said that the socioeconomic background of many Downtown parents has buffered their children somewhat from the adverse effects of rising class size. Well-off parents can afford to spend extra time with their kids on homework and shell out thousands of dollars on private tutoring and enrichment classes (Brennan coughs up $250 a week for tutoring).

But eventually, Haimson said, children south of Canal St. will start paying the price for the wave of residential development that is bringing in more that 10,000 apartment units but just 726 new school seats – 126 in an annex to P.S. 234, set to open next fall, and 600 in the K-8 Beekman school, slated for fall 2009.

"Clearly teachers are going to be stressed to the limit," Haimson said. "The kids will be less able to receive what they need."

Dennis Gault, Parent Teacher Association co-president at P.S. 89, is a public school teacher in the East Village. While New York State has pushed for class sizes of less than 20 for grades K-3 and less than 25 for upper grades, Gault said that the D.O.E. struggles to keep classes within the limits of the city teachersx contract – 25 for kindergarten and 32 for elementary grades.

"It’s like the worst-case scenario is 32 but then, whoops, it’s 34," Gault said. "That’s a Herculean task [for a teacher]."

If nothing changes, Gault’s eight-year-old daughter Cecelia would enter a fourth-grade class with either 35 or 36 students next year.

"I would weigh my options at that point," Gault said. "Philosophically, I believe in public schools, but I won’t put her into an overcrowded class."

Part of the problem is that the D.O.E.’s building capacity figures clash with class-size limits, meaning that while P.S. 89 has some overcrowded classes, the school is not technically ‘overcrowded’ yet. To reduce class size in the near term, the school may have to turn its music, art or dance rooms into classroom space (music has already been moved to a smaller room).

Other options discussed by parents include eliminating the pre-k program – a measure that was taken at P.S. 234 – or installing a trailer in the schoolyard. Though none of the suggestions are ideal, parents say they are willing to get creative to solve the class-size swell.

"If my son could get more attention and he had to be in the trailer temporarily, I would be completely open to that," Brennan said.

P.S. 89 principal Ronnie Najjar and local instructional superintendent Dan Feigelson did not return calls for comment.

Parents and education experts agree that the only way to permanently solve P.S. 89’s population problem is to create more seats for B.P.C. students. While Tribeca schools will receive some relief from the school annex and Beekman St. school, it is unclear whether the new east side facility will be zoned to include B.P.C. kids.

Community Board 1 has formed a task force to fight for more schools Downtown, but at this point, potential solutions such as putting a middle school at the World Trade Center site or at the Women’s Museum site are purely in the idea stage. Gault has also advocated putting a school annex in the Battery Park City community center, scheduled to open across Warren St. from P.S. 89 in early 2009.

For any of the long-term possibilities to move forward, P.T.A. leaders say, the parents at P.S. 89 will have to unite and speak out in the same way that P.S. 234 parents did after their own school reached 100 percent capacity in 2002.

"The parents at 234 are very organized and they champion their cause beautifully. I want the same thing in Battery Park City," Gault said.

To that end, Gault has encouraged concerned parents to attend the next C.B. 1 New Schools Task Force meeting on Dec. 13, as well as a Jan. 17 P.T.A. meeting that will feature a presentation by Class Size Matters.

"The politicians and the powers that be need to acknowledge the development in Battery Park City that is coming at such a rapid rate. We are having a big problem," said P.T.A. fundraising chair Liz Pappas. "The teachers and the administration are doing a fantastic job, but we need outside help."