In Push to Open Small Schools, a Big Obstacle: Limited Space
David M. Herszenhorn | New York Times | Aug. 3, 2006
With the Bloomberg administration pushing forward in its drive to create more than 200 small schools, city education officials have crashed into a cold reality that has long vexed New York City dwellers: They are running out of space.
In the Bronx, 500 students in two high schools are not sure where they will go when classes start next month. The schools were supposed to share a former elementary school, but nonprofit groups that have occupied the building since 1982 refuse to leave and a lawsuit has been filed. The students are likely to end up in trailers outside the building.
On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a furor has erupted at Martin Luther King Jr. High School because the Department of Education announced last month that a sixth small school would join five others already jockeying over shared space.
And in Lower Manhattan, in perhaps the starkest example of the space crunch, Chancellor Joel I. Klein announced two weeks ago that a new charter school would be housed in the basement of the department’s own headquarters.
Unlike a family of four crammed into a small one-bedroom apartment, the new schools and their burgeoning student bodies cannot move to the suburbs. Albany has authorized $11.2 billion for construction, but the city cannot build schools fast enough.
“We’re really in a quagmire,” said Andrew M. L. Turay, the principal of Peace and Diversity Academy, one of the two Bronx high schools.
Mr. Turay said he feared that hard-earned gains of the school’s first two years — attendance of 91 percent, a promotion rate of 83 percent — would be lost. “If we end up in trailers,” he said, “if and when it rains, if and when it snows, attendance is going to drop.”
Peace and Diversity shared space in a wing in Herbert Lehman High School in the Bronx but has to leave and find a new home this year so the other small school can take over the space they had shared.
The space squeeze comes at a critical time for the city’s small-schools movement, just after an initial group of schools achieved promising graduation rates better than the city average, and at a time when many small schools will have their first 12th-grade classes this fall. Many of these schools are now in their second locations; some are in a third, still waiting for a permanent home.
City education officials say the space shortage is an inevitable result of their huge and hurried push to create more and better choices for students, especially in high school. Demographic shifts are also in play with more students in high school and fewer in middle grades.
Officials note that the city has spurned no option in creating new schools — converting old factories and warehouses and even leasing space in office towers. City school buildings, they say, have never been used so efficiently.
“We use the existing space better and better, which means there are fewer and fewer alternatives,” said Garth Harries, who leads the department’s Office of New Schools. Still, he said, officials believe they can find space for dozens more schools.
Officials maintain that there is space available across the city, in some cases precisely where it is needed most, but that getting the classrooms can be difficult because principals rabidly protect their turf, at times lying about their needs.
“There’s overcrowding,” Mr. Turay said. “And there’s political overcrowding.”
Since September 2003, the administration has created more than 170 small schools, with 48 scheduled to open this September. The small schools are typically designed to serve 432 students — 108 per grade — in order to build closer relationships between children and educators.
In some cases, the shortage of space has prompted officials to order new schools to take fewer freshmen than had been planned. In other cases, principals lacking classrooms have had no choice but to cut back on courses.
The city schools have dealt with overcrowding for decades. But the current problem is not about whether every child has a chair or an individual class is too big to manage. Rather, it is about whether entire schools get displaced or principals even have offices.
Principals and parents said they did not doubt the city’s commitment to small schools, but complained of poor planning. Peace and Diversity, for example, has known since it opened in 2004 that it would outgrow its space at Herbert Lehman.
Mr. Turay, parents, and officials from the Anti-Defamation League, the school’s community partner, had been nudging Chancellor Klein for months. They were repeatedly told not to worry.
Eventually they were notified that they would share the old Public School 99 in the Bronx, at 1180 Rev. James A. Polite Avenue, with Metropolitan High, a small school that opened last year. Metropolitan’s students spent last year in trailers outside the building.
The building, however, has long been occupied by nonprofit groups. The city has filed a lawsuit to evict them but the building also needs extensive renovations. Mr. Turay said many parents do not know the building will not be ready.
Parents had hoped to keep the school at an old wing at Lehman but it was taken over by Renaissance High School of Musical Theater and Technology, another small school. Even there, space was tight and Peace and Diversity has added only 75 students a year instead of 108.
Sometimes, parents battle ferociously, as at the New Explorations Into Science Technology and Math school, known as NEST, on the Lower East Side. Parents sued to stop a new charter school from moving into their building.
The administration switched course. And the charter school, Ross Global Academy, will instead occupy the basement of the department headquarters, displacing City Hall Academy, a special civics program for children from around the city.
But even as he gave up — for now — plans to add more students to the NEST building, Chancellor Klein removed NEST’s principal, accusing her of lying and other misconduct in her efforts to prevent the Ross school from moving in.
Before opting for space at NEST, the founder of Ross, Courtney Sales Ross, had been shown space on the top floor of P.S. 147 on Bushwick Avenue in the remote eastern reaches of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, across from a housing project.
Ms. Ross rejected that space. But John Elwell, the director of Replications Inc., a nonprofit group that is founding a new specialized high school called Brooklyn Latin, quickly snatched it up, afraid there would be no place else to put the school.
Similarly, the instant a space seems available, city officials seize it. One such moment came late last year when the Boys Choir of Harlem, after years of management problems, was evicted from Choir Academy, a public school in East Harlem.
Choir Academy quickly became a possible site for Manhattan Theater Lab High School, a small school that opened in 2004, and needed to leave its original building in Harlem to let other schools there grow.
But those plans fell through. And in June, school officials decided to put Theater Lab in the Martin Luther King Jr. building, near Lincoln Center. The five small schools already there were not told until mid-July and a small uproar has ensued.
“Consultation is supposed to take place before decisions are made,” said Brenda St. Clair, the parent association president at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, one of the five. In the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the King school faces the challenge of housing six small schools. King is one of 22 campuses for which the city has developed master plans to help small schools co-exist. Although no one disputes that there are empty classrooms in the King building, Ms. Clair said other resources were tight. “The gym is too small for the five schools that are there,” she said. “We don’t have a centralized library. We don’t have enough technology.”
In rancorous negotiations in June, the five principals worked out plans to share the gym, cafeteria and science labs. The principals have not yet been able to meet about how a sixth school will change those plans.
“We understand it’s not a popular decision,” said Mr. Harries of the Education Department. “But we are doing everything we can to engage the principals to make sure it’s an easier situation.”
Ms. St. Clair, however, said parents would fight. “We don’t concede the point that it’s a done deal,” she said. Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said that with space tight, the city would have to work closely with local communities on a case-by-case basis, until new schools are built.
If work finished on time, the city would add 2,500 classroom seats in September and 3,200 seats by the 2007-8 academic year. But it is not until 2008-9 that the city’s ambitious capital plan will provide major relief with the expected addition of nearly 14,000 seats.
“After ’08-’09 this is not even a discussion,” Mr. Walcott said.
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