‘Ants in an ant farm’ — Queens schools contend with chronic overcrowding

Councilmember Adrienne Adams speaks at a rally for smaller class sizes on June 11 in front of City Hall in Manhattan.  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert.

Councilmember Adrienne Adams speaks at a rally for smaller class sizes on June 11 in front of City Hall in Manhattan. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert.

By Phineas Rueckert

Something was amiss at P.S. 150, a public school in Sunnyside, last Fall.

Deborah Alexander noticed it when she walked into her daughter’s kindergarten classroom: all of the students’ backpacks, including her daughter’s, which would normally be kept in cubbies, were slung on the backs of chairs. Because of space issues, the cubbies were being used for storing classroom supplies.

“There were so many kids in the room and so many backpacks that they just looked like ants in an ant farm just sort of milling around,” Alexander told the Eagle.

Alexander is a parent of two and co-president of the Community Education Council for School District 30, which represents some of Queens’ fastest-growing neighborhoods, including Astoria, Sunnyside and Jackson Heights.

She isn’t the first person to raise concerns about school overcrowding in Queens. The borough has long led the city in the number of schools at or over capacity. Three of the four most overcrowded school districts in the city are located in Queens, according to a 2018 City Council report on overcrowding. Those three districts — 24, 25 and 26 — were all at or above 115 percent capacity in 2014-2015. Two others ― 28 and 30 — were over 100 percent capacity, according to the report.

Overcrowding affects students and teachers in a variety of ways. Meal times have to be staggered, leading to students eating lunch before 10 a.m. in dozens of schools. Classes are relegated to windowless trailers that are not conducive to learning. Art and music teachers lose dedicated classroom spaces.

And immigrant communities are disproportionately affected by overcrowded classrooms, Make the Road NY determined in the 2015 report “Where’s My Seat?”

The reasons for overcrowding are complex — a combination of demographic growth, housing development, shortsighted policy and other factors, advocates told the Eagle. But city leaders say they’re working to address the problem.

Lorraine Grillo, the head of the School Construction Authority, said that 17,700 seats have been created in Queens schools since 2015, with another 1,600 set for the new school year in September. That’s not quite enough to make up for the 21,500 shortfall reported by the City Council, but it’s a good start, Grillo said.

“We’ve got a real success story here,” Grillo told the Eagle. “I think if you’d take the time to speak to the local elected officials, parent groups and so on, you would be pleased to hear what they have to say.”

The 2015-2019 Department of Education Capital Plan allocated nearly $2 billion toward reducing overcrowding in Queens schools — the most money given to any borough. Grillo told the Eagle that the DOE is on track to meet the target of 83,000 new seats citywide set by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2013. Queens, will see another 14,000 seats created between now and 2023, SCA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz wrote in an email.

So far, Grillo said, 94 temporary classroom units, or TCUs, have been removed from Queens schools during the de Blasio administration — leaving just 30 borough-wide.

“I think SCA is trying. We’re all trying,” said Councilmember Adrienne Adams, who represents Jamaica, Rochdale Village, Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park. “It’s definitely an issue of space, to find the space in Queens for us to develop schools for our kids, but we’re looking.”

Despite those stated improvements, some parents and education activists remain wary of the SCA’s lofty rhetoric, citing the challenge of finding space to build new schools in a place like Queens.

“Whatever’s being done in Queens, it’s not enough,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, an advocacy group that’s pushing de Blasio to reduce class sizes citywide. “Queens is not getting as getting as many seats as is necessary and no other borough is, either.”

Haimson criticized the DOE’s lack of a needs analysis — a measurement of the shortage of school seats — in the city’s most recent Capital Plan.

Jackson Heights parent Jonathan Greenberg, a member of Jackson Heights People for Public Schools, said that he didn’t think the SCA was doing enough to find new sites for schools in Queens.

“Most of the new schools that have been built in District 30 in the past few years are on sites that were identified by elected officials, by involved parents who know how to find out about empty lots and buildings that are for sale,” Greenberg said. “They’re not being identified by the SCA, or at least it doesn’t seem so.”

He said he has seen some progress to reduce overcrowding in his neighborhood, however.

Greenberg’s son, a fourth-grader, attends P.S. 212 — one of Queens’ most overcrowded schools. The most recent DOE “Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report,” colloquially known as the “Blue Book,” indicated that the school was more than 200 students over capacity in 2017-2018 — a utilization rate of 145 percent. But thanks to a new middle school scheduled to open up next September in the neighborhood, overcrowding at P.S. 212 is expected to decrease by about 15 to 25 percent.  

Efforts like the one undertaken in Jackson Heights to reduce overcrowding will need to keep pace with demographic growth in the coming years: Queens’ school-aged population is expected to increase by more than 23,000 students by 2040 — the most of any borough, according to the City Council report.

Borough President Melinda Katz, one of seven candidates running for District Attorney, has said she will continue to push for more seats at Queens schools in the coming years, Patch reported. As of press time, Katz had not responded to multiple requests for comment for this story

Parents like Alexander said they would also continue to fight to reduce overcrowding and push for smaller class sizes.

“I understand the realities of space in New York City,” Alexander said. “I am a true believer in the public school system to keep my children in these conditions.”

This is the Part One of a summer-long series about overcrowding in Queens schools.