BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited PS 69 in Jackson Heights on Monday to outline several major budgetary and teachers’ contract reforms, which he expects will transform public education in the City.
De Blasio largely focused on investments in arts education in the Fiscal Year 2015 budget announced last week, as well as efforts to alleviate overcrowding, increase parental involvement and expand universal full-day pre-k.
Joining the mayor were Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), chair of the Education Committee, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), chair of the Cultural Affairs Committee and Lavern Maison, a PS 69 parent.
The budget allocates $4.4 billion to ease overcrowding, which will largely be sent to the most overcrowded areas of the City, including central Queens, lower Manhattan and parts of Staten Island.
A 2013 United Federation of Teachers (UFT) survey found 6,313 overcrowded classrooms in the City, more than 1,000 of which were in Queens high schools alone.
“We have very good teachers and very hard working teachers,” said Martha Vazquez, who has been principal of PS 69 for more than a decade. “But obviously a little bit of a lesser number in each class [would offer] more flexibility for them to do their small group work and so forth.”
Classroom capacity is defined by the UFT contract as 34 students for high schools, 30-33 students for middle schools and 32 students for elementary schools.
“Thirty-two is a very big number when you are one teacher who is differentiating instruction and students are at different levels,” Vazquez said.
Four hundred and eighty million dollars is put towards reducing the number of mobile classrooms, otherwise referred to as trailers.
De Blasio added that the goal is to reduce trailers, not necessarily to eliminate every single one. Schools that find their trailers useful will be able to keep them.
This point fits into a larger theme of school and teacher autonomy that framed much of the reforms. The process puts faith in school principals and teachers to make certain decisions for themselves, de Blasio said, citing in particular the integration of arts into the existing curriculum, and the removal of teachers assigned from the Absent Teacher Reserve.
Dromm, who worked as a public school teacher in Queens for more than two decades, lauded this emphasis on school-specific decision making.
“This is an educator’s budget,” Dromm said.
Another major focus of de Blasio’s announcement was expanded arts education. The budget allocates $20 million for arts education programs and improvements, including partnerships with arts institutions, cultural field trips and new or renovated arts facilities.
Fariña also discussed using the funding to extend existing programs across grades and schools, so that a student would not, for example, abruptly end trumpet lessons when he or she graduates middle school.
“The arts programs to me are the most fabulous thing,” said Fariña, noting that many professional opportunities in New York are based in the arts.
Maison, whose daughter is in kindergarten as PS 69, thanked the Mayor and other elected officials for their interest in arts funding.
“Arts education definitely supports academic growth,” she said. “[My daughter] is already receiving music instruction, and I can definitely see the benefits of that,” she said.
Vazquez said that she is particularly excited about the flexibility these reforms will afford teachers.
“It’s been difficult, to maintain dedicated arts programs,” she said, adding that she especially struggles to find the space for arts-only classrooms.
Other reforms that de Blasio highlighted include funding for after-school and summer-school programs, extra time in teachers’ schedules for parent outreach and doubled evening parent-teacher conferences each month.
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JNStrawbridge.