‘Sophie’s Choice’ for principal: Crowd the school or cut education


By Julie Shapiro

Millennium High School’s principal plans to go over capacity by nearly 100 students next year to save his academic programs from cuts.

Robert Rhodes said he is overcrowding the seven-year-old school on Broad St. because he has little choice. Principal Rhodes has lost more than $200,000 from his budget over the past two years, while the average teacher salary jumped by $5,000. As his budget tightens, he has to pack his classes as full as possible or he risks losing still more funding, he said.

“I’m worried about what’s going to happen in the future,” Rhodes said, calling the budget reductions “death by a thousand cuts.”

Rhodes pushed the limit a little this year, swelling the 520-seat school with 575 students, but next year he plans to grow even further to 615 students.

Despite the cuts and crowding, Millennium High School is getting more competitive. The school founded in the wake of 9/11 received a record 4,237 applications this year and accepted 165, or just under 4 percent of them. More than 3,000 of those applicants listed Millennium as one of their top five choices.

Millennium started with mostly Lower Manhattan students, but this fall, more than two-thirds of the freshmen will come from outside the neighborhood. (The school still gives preference to applicants below Houston St., admitting them at about twice the average rate.) Millennium graduates have gone on to the country’s top schools, including Columbia, Yale and M.I.T.

But as the school’s citywide reputation grows, its challenges continue. Seven years after opening, Millennium still has no gym, and the overcrowding is threatening the personalized atmosphere that many students say drew them to the school.

“It’s very sad,” said Madelyn Wils, the former chairperson of Community Board 1 who spearheaded the fundraising that made Millennium possible. “The budget cuts are really a backbreaker, and not just for Millennium.”

Wils called Rhodes’ task a “‘Sophie’s Choice’ in education.”

“It’s a hard choice to make: cut services or add more kids,” said Wils, who now works for the city Economic Development Corp. in a role unrelated to education. “You shouldn’t have to choose.”

If Rhodes’ budget gets reduced any more, he could have to cut Advanced Placement classes, art electives and gym, and would have to consider offering fewer years of foreign language, math and science.

“While that’s still within city requirements, it doesn’t prepare kids for college,” Rhodes said in an interview.

But the larger classes aren’t a good solution either, Rhodes said. He expects all classes to have at least an extra student or two next fall, though he still hopes to keep ninth-grade classes below 30 students. This year, ninth-grade classes have about 28 students, 10th-grade classes have 30 or 31 and the 11th and 12th-grade classes have anywhere from 26 to 34, depending on the subject. When Rhodes bumps classes up from an ideal 26 students to the union limit of 34, the fail rate doubles, he said.

Whenever classes top 30 students, “We’re accepting a certain amount of failure,” Rhodes said. “We can’t meet the need.”

Will Havemann, spokesperson for the Dept. of Education, said budget cuts are difficult for all schools, but, citing attrition, he said he did not expect Millennium to have as many students next fall as Rhodes predicted. Rhodes, though, said his estimates are correct, and he accepted more students this year who will be replacing a smaller graduating class.

Paul Hovitz, a former teacher and a Community Board 1 member who fought to build the school, said the rising class size is disconcerting.

“It is a shame,” said Hovitz, who has done consultant work for the Dept. of Education. “If a teacher needs to split themselves among 40 kids rather than 20 kids, it depletes exponentially the quality of the education.”

To serve its growing population, Millennium has also started holding classes in the library and in hallway lounge space.

“We haven’t had to use the cafeteria yet,” said Angela Benfield, the parent coordinator. “But who knows — we might.”

Millennium’s supporters and current students are also upset that the school still does not have a gym.

Isaiah Travis, 17, (bottom left on Page 1 photo) wakes up at 5 a.m. during basketball season to get to 6:15 a.m. practices at the Chinatown YMCA, the only time the team can use that space.

“It’s pretty annoying,” Travis said. “The school definitely needs a gym, and not only for athletic purposes…. It would help bring school spirit.”

At a Community Board 1 meeting last month, City Councilmember Alan Gerson said it was imperative to find gym space as soon as possible.

Gerson, Rhodes and others thought they had already found a space when the school was first designed: the 34th floor of the building Millennium shares with office tenants. The 4,000-square-foot space has high ceilings and could hold half a basketball court. While not perfect, it is better than the cramped weight room and L-shaped multipurpose room students are using now.

The initial obstacle to building out the space was money, but after Gerson and the Council allocated $1.6 million and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver added $750,000, the project should have had enough to start moving forward.

Now, the problem is that the F.D.N.Y. thinks the 34th floor is unsafe for students. In an emergency, students on the 34th floor are too far from the main body of the school on the 11th through 13th floors and are too high off the ground, the F.D.N.Y wrote in a November 2008 letter to the Dept. of Education.

“The Fire Department strongly recommends the denial of the proposed 34th floor gymnasium additions,” the letter states. The F.D.N.Y. would not approve extending the school’s fire prevention systems to the 34th floor, the letter concludes.

Havemann, the D.O.E. spokesperson, said the D.O.E. would follow the Fire Dept.’s recommendation.

Rhodes thinks there is a way to safely have a gym on the 34th floor, since the school is already almost halfway up the office building.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” agreed Hovtiz, the C.B. 1 member and former teacher. “If the Fire Dept. has that problem with the 34th floor, why don’t they have the same problem with the school itself?”

In case the city does not relent, Rhodes has started looking for alternate gym spaces, including the former Strand Annex on Fulton St. If an off-site solution comes through, Gerson hopes it could serve two other Lower Manhattan schools — High School of Economics and Finance and Leadership and Public Service High School — and become a community center during off hours.

In the meantime, the lack of gym space is an impediment for Aaron Silverman, the school’s athletics director, who said early-morning sports practices are more than an inconvenience for students.

“It impacts academic performance,” Silverman said. “They go to class tired, and their entire day is disrupted.”

The absence of a gym also limits options for physical education classes, where students are resigned to running on a treadmill or doing yoga. The few “sports” the multi-purpose room can safely hold include traditional elementary school games like Duck, Duck, Goose and Steal the Bacon, students said.

In nice weather, students sometimes go to Battery Park to run around, but it takes nearly half the 50-minute period for the students to change their clothes and get to the park and back, Silverman said.

Cody Chang, 17, (center right on Page 1 photo) captain of Millennium’s fencing team, said the school has no ideal space for the uninterrupted 2-meter-by-14-meter strip required for bouts. In the multipurpose room, a foam-padded column sits beside the strip, and fencers extending their arms are in danger of bumping it. The cafeteria is more open, but the ceiling is so low that fencers have poked holes in it.

Chang said it is a disadvantage to have to practice under such constrained conditions, and visiting teams are often baffled by the obstacles.

“Having a gym would allow us to fence properly,” Chang said.

Andrés Estela, 17, a senior, was captain of the baseball team last year and said it was tough to practice since hardballs aren’t allowed in the multi-purpose room.

“It’s hard to play pretty much any sport,” Estela said.

Rhodes said he has gotten little support from the city for building the gym, and he is worried that the school will have trouble staying successful if the budget cuts continue. Millennium is not a Title I school and so it does not qualify for some federal funding streams, but 42 percent of the students receive a free lunch, Rhodes said.

Ann Forte, a D.O.E. spokesperson, said the city is looking into expanding the definition of Title 1 to include more schools. The city is getting federal stimulus money for education, but it will mostly go toward Title 1 schools and special education, she said.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein identified a need similar to the one Rhodes described when he testified before state Assembly and Senate committees in January. Klein asked for more flexibility in spending state funds that are generally earmarked for high-need schools.

“Schools like Millennium are particularly vulnerable,” Rhodes said. “Middle-class schools are really forgotten.”