How many children can we really fit in a school?


By Shino Tanikawa 

Fourth graders learning math in the hallway. Kindergartners eating lunch at 10:40 a.m. Thirty-three energetic — read “normal” — eighth graders are in a 625-square-foot room; it’s 89 degrees inside the room and there’s only one teacher. These are the realities of many of our public schools in New York City.

School overcrowding is a complex issue with two separate but related aspects: overall enrollment and class size. The New York City Department of Education releases an annual “Enrollment, Capacity, Utilization Report” — commonly known as “The Blue Book.” In a rather complex manner, D.O.E. analyzes how many students can fit into each school and determines whether a school is at, below or above capacity compared to the actual enrollment. Even though the analysis is supposedly based on target class sizes — which, to many of us, are still too big — the method is obviously flawed since a school deemed underutilized can have classes with more than 30 students.

The Blue Book also fails to consider other essential infrastructure needs, such as the capacity of bathrooms and cafeteria and adequate space for instructional support services, which often require privacy or separate space. Neither does the report take into account “cluster rooms,” used for subjects such as art, music, movement, science and computer, taught by specialized “cluster” teachers. These shortcomings lead to a less-than-ideal learning environment, taking away from our children’s educational experience. Children at P.S. 3, at Hudson and Grove Sts. in the Village, begin their lunch period at 10:40 a.m. because the cafeteria can only accommodate three classes at a time. Many of these students attend after-school and do not eat another meal until 7 p.m.

P.S. 41, on W. 11th St. near Sixth Ave., is forced to provide its instructional support services in the broom closet and the hallway. A few years back, a science cluster teacher at P.S. 3 had to travel up and down the hallway and stairs carrying all her supplies and materials.

Sometimes it is the location of the bathroom that dictates how many students we can accommodate. At P.S. 3, kindergartners and first graders use the unisex bathroom on the same floor as their classrooms, so that they do not have to go up and down the stairs to single-sex bathrooms. Thus, there is a limit to how many students in these grades the school can serve. The Blue Book does not account for these real-life hardships and limitations. Instead it mathematically calculates how many students a school should enroll.

But perhaps the most serious shortcoming of the D.O.E. analysis is the fact that it does nothing to reduce the unacceptably large class sizes. While the analysis uses target class sizes of 20 students for K to third grades, P.S. 3 had an average of 28 students per class in those grades last year. For fourth and fifth grades, the target class size is 28 students; but two years ago, P.S. 3 had classes with more than 30 students in those grades. The school was rated at 103 percent capacity last year, but if you do the math, 28 students in a classroom rated for 20 is really at 140 percent capacity.

Beyond the physical capacity, a classroom with 30 students and one teacher is simply not the best environment for learning, particularly for the way we teach our children today. Gone are the days when the teacher stood in the front of the room and talked at students sitting in neat rows. The current education model nurtures active participation by children and encourages working in groups, which often requires space for the whole class to sit as a group (“rug area”), as well as desks that are grouped. Even if the classroom is physically large enough to accommodate this model of teaching, it is inherently difficult to engage 30 students with only one teacher. Granted, there are plenty of teachers who can handle 30 students, but it takes a toll on them. Teacher retention is a serious problem in this city, and one way to retain our teachers is by improving the teaching environment through smaller classes. 

To address the infrastructure needs of our schools, D.O.E. prepares a capital plan every five years. The current plan is painfully inadequate in addressing overcrowding at both the school and classroom levels. In fact, D.O.E. does not take into consideration the development that is ubiquitous all over the city. Community School District 2, which covers much of Manhattan, is expected to see an increase of 18.5 percent (or approximately 4,700 students) in the population of school age children by 2014. Yet, the department’s most recent capital plan creates only a little under 3,200 new seats in District 2.

The city is obligated to reduce class sizes under the landmark court decision spearheaded by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. Yet, our classes are not getting smaller, but are expected to get larger. Quite simply, we cannot reduce class sizes without creating more classrooms, and we cannot create more classrooms without building more schools.

Fed up with the lack of D.O.E. initiatives, parents in the Village took the matter in their own hands. A group of parents fought for a new school to be included in the plan for Pier 40 at W. Houston St. Another group pushed for a school as part of the St. Vincent’s/Rudin redevelopment proposal, which led to a promise of a school at the Foundling Hospital site at 16th St. and Sixth Ave. Parents from P.S. 3 and P.S. 41 have forged a partnership with Community Board 2, which has hosted public meetings on school overcrowding and passed a resolution that requires all new development proposals for review by C.B. 2 to include analysis of impact on schools.

In addition, a group of parents from P.S. 41 has scouted out the Village neighborhoods for properties that may potentially be converted to schools and has come up with a list of more than dozen buildings. One such property is the state-owned building at 75 Morton St., on which state legislators and the city are now focusing. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has also formed a task force to begin developing a strategy for reducing school overcrowding. The task force membership includes parents who have been active on this issue.

So what are the lessons learned? First and foremost, we, the parents, have to be proactive, persistent and creative. We should not take no for an answer, but realize that the onus is on us to present viable, well-researched alternatives. Indeed, this is a time-consuming endeavor, often requiring hours away from our family. (This is when blind faith in what we do comes in handy.) Forging partnerships is a highly effective way of putting the issue on the negotiating table. Most important, we need to be patient and accept that change does happen but only very slowly in this city. Not an easy task when we see our children grow up in a blink of an eye.

Shino Tanikawa is a parent at P.S. 3 and Clinton School for Writers and Artists and a member of the Public School Political Action Committee.