By Leslie Brody
Classes in locker rooms. Students spilling into hallways to change clothes for gym. High school stairwells so packed with teenagers trying to rush to class that if anyone trips it might cause a stampede.
These complaints about severe overcrowding in New York City schools were among many aired by students, parents and advocates at a City Council Committee on Education hearing on the chronic problem Tuesday.
Some warned the space crunch will get worse with projected enrollment increases, the expansion of preschools and the growth of charter schools in regular public-school buildings.
Department of Education officials acknowledged that 575 school buildings, or 44% of the total, are overcrowded. In some cases, that is due to population surges in certain neighborhoods, such as in District 20 in Brooklyn. In others, officials attributed the squeeze to their efforts to let as many students as possible attend popular options such as Townsend Harris High School in Queens and the Bronx High School of Science.
Elizabeth Rose, an acting deputy chancellor, said the department’s proposed $13.5 billion five-year capital plan reflects a need for 49,000 new seats, and includes funding to create about 33,000 of them. She said the plan allocates money to phase out the use of trailers for classrooms and to reduce class sizes.
But critics said the department’s data underestimated the degree of the problem in the sprawling system for 1.1 million children. Leonie Haimson, head of Class Size Matters, a group that advocates for smaller classes, said her analysis found the city will need more than 100,000 new seats in by 2021.
“The current capital plan doesn’t nearly meet the needs of the system,” she said.
Ms. Haimson said Mayor Bill de Blasio ’s plan to build 160,000 additional market-rate housing units over the next decade, as well as more affordable housing, will add even more demand for school space.
Some advocates said there is no room to allow for a big jump in charter schools seeking space in traditional public school buildings, and argued against Gov. Andrew Cuomo ’s call to expand charters.
The governor says he wants to give families more choice and havens from failing schools, and so is pushing to raise the cap on charters by 100, to 560, and to remove the regional limits on their allocation. New York City is almost at its maximum, with 197 charter schools
Hiroko Suzuki, a parent, said her eighth-grade son begged her to tell the council about the lack of space in Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in Manhattan.
Ms. Suzuki said a prospective student touring the school asked him to point out the art room, music room and library.
“Unfortunately we don’t have any of that,” she said.
Daniel Dromm, who heads the council’s education committee, expressed concern about the impact on both students and teachers. “How do you evaluate teachers who have to teach in a locker room?” he asked.
While some areas face severe overcrowding, such as Districts 24, 25 and 26 in Queens, some buildings have idle classrooms.
A report from the Independent Budget Office found 156,000 empty seats citywide last year, and encouraged education officials to create attractive programs to draw students to underused sites.
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