Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The high school space crunch

Even as the Bloomberg administration pushes ahead with plans for a lavish Police Academy on a sprawling high-tech 30-acre campus, public school students are packed like sardines without any relief in sight. For high schools, the situation is critical. As Leonie reported on this blog back in November:
For high schools, the undersupply of new seats is even more shocking: though there is a need for at least 90,000 new HS seats, the plan would provide only about 2,600 IS/HS seats. Not a single new high school is proposed for Manhattan or Staten Island…… In the Bronx, not a single new HS seat is proposed …..
DOE’s indifference to the need for more high school seats is no news to students and parents at Stuyvesant High School, where overcrowding is threatening not only the students’ well-being and education but also their safety. Should you visit Stuyvesant High School during one of the many events DOE likes to stage there, you might admire the airy 10-story building with stunning river views, impressive granite-clad lobby and soaring atrium and conclude that Stuy kids are pampered indeed. But come back when school is in session and you’ll see a very different picture: dozens of students socializing, studying and even eating while sitting on the floor-- the landing of the grand staircase and the second floor hallway are so crowded that you literally have to pick your way through the students and take care not to step on a hand or knock over a drink. Go to the cafeteria, and you won't see a single empty seat; students have taken to sitting on the radiators even when they’re hot. Space--for classrooms as well as for kids to eat lunch or hang out during free periods-- has been a critical issue at Stuyvesant for at least three years.

Built to house an average class of about 700 students (2,835 in total, according to the Blue Book), Stuyvesant has been forced by Chancellor Klein--over the principal’s strenuous objections--to take increasingly larger classes. Enrollment is currently about 3,240; with next fall’s incoming class of nearly 900, it will climb to 3,350; if the trend continues, Stuyvesant may eventually house 3,600 students.

Overcrowding is impacting education as well as quality of student life: next fall, much of the library will be gone to make way for a classroom, and each period will be reduced by one minute to allow students sufficient time to pass between classes. Without space for new classrooms and a 4% budget cut in the face of increased enrollment, class size can only go up, of course. Class size at Stuyvesant is already among the highest of any public school: global history, government, physics, math B and geometry have more than 33 students on average, with several physics and geometry classes already maxed out at 35. Only the English department has kept average class size below 30 thanks to an initiative, recently extended with CFE money, to improve writing by capping composition classes at 25. It is often said that Stuyvesant students teach themselves—that will serve them in good stead, as they will not get much individual attention from teachers. It’s a pity guidance and college counseling are not self-service departments; at a minimum, students will still need teachers to write letters of recommendation for college—an issue that has already provoked much discontent and dissension as teachers feel overburdened by the numbers.

Equally worrisome from a parent's perspective is the issue of safety. Although it’s relatively easy to maintain order under normal circumstances, evacuating 3,300 students from a 10- story building in an emergency will be a challenge, and notifying parents in a timely fashion will be impossible (the auto- dialer system already takes 2-3 days to reach all the families).

Why is Stuyvesant so crowded? It isn't because NYC children have gotten smarter. Contrary to popular belief, there is no particular SHSAT score that will get a child into Stuyvesant-- the cut-off is set only as a function of how many students the Chancellor dictates the building can accept. This year’s freshman class may well have been enlarged to accommodate parents who can no longer afford private school, but Stuyvesant was already at 110% of capacity in 2004, when the principal, taking his own empowerment seriously, capped the entering class at 700-- and promptly got in trouble for it.

Overcrowding at Stuyvesant is a product of DOE's failure to tackle the need for more high school seats. Even as the Chancellor trumpets higher test scores, DOE has failed to plan for what to do with all those much-improved eighth-graders. What we need are more academically solid high schools with thoughtfully designed programs—the hugely popular Beacon comes to mind—in new buildings. Chopping up existing buildings into small schools with grandiose names that seldom match the reality of their programs, and stuffing more and more children into already crowded good schools such as Stuyvesant does not create additional capacity. We need a better capital plan NOW.

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