Advocates Say NYC's $8.8 Billion Plan to Address School Overcrowding Isn't Focused on the Right Fix

Advocates Say NYC's $8.8 Billion Plan to Address School Overcrowding Isn't Focused on the Right Fix

Francis Lewis High School in Queens has a 207% utilization rate, making it desperately overcrowded.

While the number of overcrowded schools in New York City has declined by 31 buildings since 2015, some 520,000 kids–roughly half of the city’s student population–attend schools that are oversaturated and ill-equipped to handle their student bodies. The worst overcrowding is happening in Brooklyn, Queens, and the central Bronx. Overall, there are 1.1 million students in 1,840 schools in 32 districts across the five boroughs. Some students are forced to learn in Transportable Classroom Units (TCUs), trailers placed outside main school buildings, in order to make sure there is enough space for everyone. The city has been trying to fix this problem for years, as the Gotham Gazette reported in a longer piece on the issue

According to a July 9 report from the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), the current need for school expansion already exceeds the 83,000 seats that the Department of Education identified to be built to reduce crowding.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s new 2019-2024 capital plan includes nearly $8.8 billion for school capacity projects to be started over the next five years. However, the plan does not contain an updated estimate of seats needed–while residential development, rezoning projects, and other trends will change the need in certain sub-districts.

“It’s very suspicious,” Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy organization, told Gotham Gazzette. “They claim to be building all the seats that are necessary, but that’s based upon an estimate that is many years old.”

$180 million is dedicated to removing TCUs, in which about 8,000 students learn, according to a 2018 estimate. Former schools Chancellor Carmen Farina had said the DOE removed 159 of 354 trailers and had plans to remove 75 more. Back in 2003, Michael Bloomberg’s capital plan promised all trailers would be gone by 2012.

Many people are under the impression that most schools in the city are overcrowded, most overcrowding occurs in middle and high schools, and adding seats is the best way to tackle the issue. In reality, a 2016 CBC report illustrates, most schools have excess seats, elementary schools are most overcrowded, and rezoning, changing admissions policies, repurposing seats, and programming are the best methods for opening space for students.

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Isabelle Boundy, the assistant press secretary at the DOE, says the DOE already uses many of the tactics recommended by the report. 

“We’re committed to reducing class size and alleviating overcrowding and have already implemented many of the recommendations in the report," Boundy says. "We’ll continue to build on these cost-effective investments such as rezoning, re-purposing seats through grade truncations and other significant changes to school utilization, setting high school seat targets aligned to space and demand, helping principals program their instructional space more efficiently, and creating capacity through room conversion projects.”  

Overcrowding presents kids with many disadvantages. When a school is oversaturated, kids are packed into large classes where less learning happens. Kids are less engaged, are more likely to be held back or referred to special education, and are more likely to have disciplinary problems, says Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

Class Size Matters estimates that the city needs to add at least 100,000 seats–not 83,000­–based on the number of schools that are currently overcrowded, the likelihood of enrollment growth in parts of the city, and the need for class size reduction. Right now, District 25 in Queens and District 20 in Brooklyn both have utilization rates of over 121% for the 2017-2018 school year. Haimson says 330,000 students in the city were in classes of 30 or more kids.

The DOE recently broke ground on a 555 seat annex at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, the building with a 207% utilization rate, according to Boundy. The annex is scheduled to open in 2021. de Blasio's 2019-2024 plan includes funding to create approximately 57,000 seats within districts experiencing the most overcrowding, and will disseminate approximately 11,000 seats between Districts 20 and 25–6,352 and 4,862 seats, respectively. 

Main Image: Mayor de Blasio & others break ground for a new East New York school. Credit John McCarten/City Council, via Gotham Gazzette.