Overcrowding in NYC Public Schools: A Growing Problem

Johanna Garcia (photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

In just five days, the legislature in Albany will approve the state’s budget for the next fiscal year and make a decision on whether to extend Mayor Bill de Blasio’s control of public schools. While a number of community organizations support the leader’s work on education, other groups – including activists, politicians and parents – are blaming him for classroom overcrowding, brandishing data that proves that the problem is growing throughout the city.

Of the estimated 1.1 million students in New York City’s school system, 30 percent are crammed into classrooms with 30 or more students, according to figures collected last fall. Of those, 182,425 students are in high school, 115,903 in grades 4 to 8, and 37,837 are between kindergarten and third grade. More than 50 percent of them are Latino.

These are the numbers published in a report issued by the organization Class Size Matters, which found that the most dramatic spike in classroom population was seen in grades 1 to 3, where the number of students in classes with more than 30 has increased 3,000 percent since 2007 – from 1,185 to  36,486. In the case of grades 4 to 8, the growth has been 40 percent.

The report also states that the size of classes in the city between pre-K and third grade has shot up 14 percent since January 2007. The average classroom has almost 24 students, in contrast with the projected goal of 19. In general, classroom population across the five boroughs is 15 to 30 percent larger than in the rest of the state.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of the organization that produced the report, said that an incremental growth has occurred despite the approval in 2007 of the Contracts for Excellence state law, which required that schools have smaller classes. (…)

“This is an enormous problem, and in most cases it is mainly affecting schools where immigrant students go. In the case of Latino children in Bronx and Queens schools, where many students are learning English, classrooms are extremely overcrowded, and the situation tends to worsen,” said Haimson, adding that the situation is severe in school districts such as 7, 8, 20 and 14 and that there are schools in Corona, Queens, with classrooms with more than 40 students.

The activist blames the city’s Department of Education (DOE) and the New York State Education Department directly, but particularly Mayor Bill de Blasio.

“The mayor manages the schools system and, even though he promised to reduce class sizes during his campaign, he later changed his mind and added thousands of new pre-K seats, clearly showing that his priority was pre-K but not reducing class sizes,” said Haimson (…).

The Alliance for Quality Education shares these concerns. After a visit to 15 city schools alongside legislators, last week it presented the report “View from the Classroom: The Reality of Underfunding in New York’s Schools,” which states that one of the primary issues in the school system is how class size surpasses 30 students.

“In some districts, students attend classes in trailers, hallways, storage closets, locker rooms, the principal’s office, in front of elevator banks or even off site, due to a lack of classroom space in the school building. (…) Every inch of space is being utilized for instruction, including the principal’s office and the school library,” said the report.

To press the city to enforce this law and reduce the number of students in classrooms, a group of parents who lost a lawsuit against the DOE in 2017 is preparing an appeal to the court to be filed in April.

Naila Rosario (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Naila Rosario is one of those parents. Her two children are in sixth and eighth grade at a Brooklyn school. She said that she and her kids know firsthand what it is like to deal with overcrowded classrooms and that the effect of changing schools is “like night and day.”

“When they were in elementary school, at P.S. 172 in Sunset Park, there were 32 students in my daughter’s classroom and 36 in my son’s, and I saw that the teacher was unable to give them individual attention,” said Rosario. The Brooklyn neighborhood is among those with the most claims of overcrowding. “There was no space in the gym and it was being used as a cafeteria as well. There was no progress in reading or math. The children sat in a hallway because there was no room to teach, and I had to come up with money for tutoring,” said the Colombian-born mother. “Now that they go to M.S. 839, the boy is studying in a class where there are 18 students and the girl is in one with 20, and I can see that they are more focused. The school has space, there is a separate library and a gym, and there is a clear difference even in the way they interact with each other.”

(…) “The previous school was 90 percent or more Latino, and this one has 44 percent white students, and less than 15 percent are Latino students,” added Rosario. “You can see the difference in the services they get and in the resources. I do not think it is a coincidence that Latino schools are overcrowded.”

Johanna García, another one of the parents who filed the lawsuit, has her three children, ages 12, 13 and 17, in Upper Manhattan schools. She said that overcrowding there is so severe that her oldest daughter, in seventh grade, did not even have a chair to sit in for class.

“Our Hispanic children, especially those who have just arrived, are the most affected. When there are too many students in a classroom, it is hard to personalize the education. They receive fewer services, less support, and every month they fall further behind, and that is unfair. They are being categorized as less capable or less intelligent, but the truth is that they have not received the support they deserve to stand out,” said García, who is Cuban.

(…) For its part, the DOE denied that the scenario is so worrisome and added that they are fulfilling their obligation to reduce overpopulation in classrooms. They also denied that promoting pre-K programs is causing overcrowding in schools.

“This administration is complying with our promise to create 83,000 new seats in schools to reduce overcrowding, and the number of overcrowded elementary schools with pre-K has in fact dropped since 2014-15, despite the fact that more elementary schools offer it now,” said Doug Cohen, spokesman for the DOE. “That report is obsolete, and it is incorrect.”


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