P.S. 89 class size drops, delighting parents & principal

By Julie Shapiro

When parents talk about Lower Manhattan schools, the word “overcrowded” usually headlines the discussion. Residential buildings are popping up throughout the district, and they quickly fill with families drawn to the neighborhood’s strong schools.

But at P.S. 89, class sizes are down to levels that would have seemed unlikely last year. This year’s third-graders are in classes with an average of 19 students, compared to last year, when their classes squeezed in an average of 27 students.

“It definitely creates an environment where there can be more opportunities for individual attention and small-group attention,” Principal Ronnie Najjar said. She added, however, that the most important factor in student success is the quality of the teacher.

“You can have a class of 18 kids, but the teacher is not experienced, not competent,” Najjar said. “It’s not going to matter who’s in that class.”

The classes got smaller because Najjar created new second and third grade classes, not because the school’s population decreased. In fact, the student body increased slightly from 508 last school year to 512 this year. But Najjar was able to hire two additional teachers through state funding called Early Grade Reduction. The next step was finding a place for the new classes using the school’s limited resources and space.

First, she and the school leadership team, founded by P.T.A. president Dennis Gault, surveyed the school for potential classroom space. They got one classroom by I.S. 89 sacrificing its computer room and another by removing walls in a guidance suite. As part of the deal for a new building at 50 West St., developer Time Equities promised to buy a set of laptops for I.S. 89, the middle school that shares the P.S. 89 building. The promise of laptops allowed I.S. 89 to give its computer room to P.S. 89 for classroom space at the beginning of the school year, though the Time Equities deal was not final until November.

As a result of the new classrooms, both the second and third-grade class sizes decreased. The third-grade decrease was more dramatic, but second-graders were in classes with an average of 20 students this year, down from 22.5 the previous year.

The numbers may look good for P.S. 89, but each school year brings an unpredictable new population to the school, and Najjar isn’t guaranteed to get the same amount of funding from one year to the next. The mayor has already deemed this a tough budget year, and the Department of Education could a face a 5 percent budget cut, which would trickle down to the schools, Najjar said. The cut would force the school to make tough choices about teachers, supplies and enrichment activities.

Meanwhile, new buildings keep opening in Battery Park City, with many new residents drawn to the neighborhood because of the schools.

“This neighborhood is really growing by leaps and bounds,” she said.

That means that the new pre-K-8 school at Site 2B in Battery Park City is still necessary, regardless of whether P.S. 89 is overcrowded this year, Najjar said. Although the zoning of the new school, which will open in fall 2010, has not been announced, Najjar thinks it will help.

Gault, a teacher in the city system, has fought to reduce class sizes for the last two years at P.S. 89. He and a group of concerned parents went up to Albany to meet with Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last year, and Silver promised them the Site 2B school. The reduction in overcrowding this year is an achievement, albeit a temporary one, he said.

“It was a major victory,” Gault said. “Besides having excellent teachers, which we do, class size is a major way to affect student achievement.”

As Gault looks forward, like Najjar, he is concerned about the neighborhood’s increasing population. Gault estimates that every new residential building brings in 30 elementary school kids. With the mayor’s budget cuts on the horizon, the school system is ill prepared to absorb so many new students, he said.

Gault added, “Schools would be the last thing I would cut if I were mayor.”