BY LIZ GOFF
If borough statistics are accurate, more than 5,100 new students will file into Queens schools (kindergarten through high school) this September in what is now an annual rite of Queens classroom crunch that will leaves school hallways looking like the No. 7 train at 7 a.m.
As the Tribune went to press, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy announced that he will implement $190 million in cuts to offset the overall $2.8 billion short fall to the Board of Education’s budget.
Queens Borough President Claire Shulman reacted to Levy’s announcement by saying “I spoke with Chancellor Levy today and insisted that classroom and after school programs not be touched.” Shulman said that includes any program that deals with the children.
As the squeeze to learn begins this year, Queens parents will be doing their own back-to-school shopping for information on crowding, promotions, school scores and school board facts. What follows are some of the basics.
The Big Squeeze
While overall enrollment in city schools is on the decline, the Board of Education is estimating that Queens will need at least 80,000 new seats for students over the next decade. But it’s easier to talk about building new schools than it is to drive the first nail, borough officials said.
In communities throughout Queens, officials and activists agree on the need for new schools. But just the mention of a new school being built in some communities is ammunition for a full-fledged battle by neighbors, said a spokesman for the School Construction Authority.
According to a report released by Queens Borough President Claire Shulman, a total of 273,107 students packed into Queens classrooms in 1999. That number had grown to 278,204 by September 2000 – forcing schools to operate at 111 percent over capacity.
Even with massive construction, most Queens utilization rates are projected to be above 100 percent through 2009, Shulman said. By the end of 2009, Queens school enrollment will increase 11 percent – to more than 300,000 – leaving an average deficit of approximately 42,000 seats.
John Ciafone, vice president of Community School Board 30, said, “While residents and community leaders agree on the need for new schools and additional seats, when it comes down to a new school opening in their neighborhood, they often have a ‘not in my backyard’ attitude.”
Take the case of Community School Board 24. The district needs 5,322 new seats to lower its utilization rate. Schools in Woodside, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Middle Village and Sunnyside are operating at 116 percent above capacity – making the district the most overcrowded in New York City.
Despite that fact, proposals for two new schools in the district are up in the air, facing strong opposition by the community.
In Woodside, plans for an 800-seat elementary (or high school) were voted down by Community Board 2 for safety and environmental reasons. The school, proposed for construction on the site of the former Stevens Appliance Store at 51st Street and Queens Boulevard, sits next to a gas station which contains buried tanks that have “probably” leaked toxic materials into the surrounding land. And, the site is located on Queens Boulevard, possibly the most dangerous stretch of highway in the borough.
Board 2 members are urging the city to take a look at property located about two blocks away – and away from Queens Boulevard. But Board of Education and borough officials are set on the Queens Boulevard site for the new school.
The controversy is ongoing, and certain to go on for some time to come. Meanwhile, district students are being taught in closets and lunchrooms.
Shulman said, “Finding sites is not a problem. The problem is getting the shovel into the ground.”
In District 30, which encompasses the neighborhoods of Astoria, Long Island City and Jackson Heights, six new schools are on the boards – and one is under way.
P. S. 234 is under construction on 29th Street, near 30th Avenue, in Astoria. The 117,000-square-foot, 901-seat school carries a price tag of $41 million. It is slated for opening in September 2003, said a spokesperson at the School Construction Authority.
Renovations have been completed at P. S. 166 on 33rd Street and 35th Avenue in Long Island City. The original school building was expanded, utilizing the schoolyard. The 36,000 square-foot, $17.9 million extension will accommodate 360 additional students in 18 classrooms. The extension is scheduled to open in September.
Shulman said her staff is discussing several alternatives to new schools, including year-round classes, to alleviate overcrowding.
Year-round schooling is an idea that has been tossed around for many years. The idea may be gaining serious momentum, as parents who have been opposed to the idea are finding merits in the system.
Shulman said the plan would require new legislation, but would create 6,000 new high school seats and save $400 million in new construction costs.
“Plainly, something must be done,” Shulman said. “I consider this to be a real emergency.”
Two years ago, the Board of Education adopted a policy designed to eliminate the automatic promotion of failing students but according to the current statistics, those rules are being followed inconsistently – or hardly at all, by school districts throughout Queens.
Student activists charge that this type of discrepancy will result in large numbers of students who failed the tests being promoted – despite their lack of skills.
Schools Chancellor Harold Levy said, “It is clear from reviewing the numbers that there is a wide divergence among districts in the rate at which they mandate summer school attendance.
“It would appear that this policy is being applied differently in each district across the city.”
Levy has called on Brian Morrow. chief administrator for summer school programs, and an outside evaluation company to examine data for clues about how the districts are applying the rules.
A Web of Information
The Board of Education information available to Queens parents with a click on the world wide web is constantly growing and getting more impressive.
From the Board’s main site at www.nycenet.edu/offices, you can jump to general information about standards and Board contacts to specific information about the Queens school district in your area . . . or the area you might want to raise your family in.
School Board 25’s site offers and incredible amount of information, including the district’s latest report card from the board and a special button for the latest weather conditions. The sites of other school boards may have fewer pages to view, but they include essential addresses, phone numbers and school program information.
The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores for city high school students who took the test last year are out and there was an improvement from the year before – although only a small one.
According to a spokesperson for the Board of Ed., breakdowns of the scores by borough are not yet available. The only scores released so far are citywide.
Overall, city students averaged a score of 918 out of 1600, which is three points higher than the year before. Students averaged 445 out of 800 on the verbal portion of the test, one point higher than last year. The average score on the mathematics half of the test was 473, up from 471 the year before out of a highest possible score of 800.
As it has been most years, the average score for city students was lower than both the state and national average. The state average was 1000, while the national average was 1020.