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Op/Ed: Make Schools a Priority in SPURA Plan

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The ongoing debate about the future of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area revolves around the issue of affordable vs. market rate housing.  But during Community Board 3’s deliberations, other topics., such as the need for new schools and cultural facilities, have been raised, if only briefly. According to John Shapiro (a consultant hired by the city to work with CB3), the Department of Education doesn’t believe a new school should be a priority in the SPURA development plan.  Today, we have another perspective on the subject. The following Op/Ed was submitted to The Lo-Down by the Community Education Council of District 1:

As urban planners work with the Seward Park Urban Redevelopment Area (SPURA) committee and other community members on plans to develop the Seward Park area, questions regarding local school building capacity, enrollment and utilization are emerging.

The Community Education Council for District 1 (the Lower East Side and East Village), an all-parent board of volunteers that under mayoral control replaced the local community school board, hopes to inform this debate based on our deep understanding of our local schools and the ways in which the NYC Department of Education’s capital planning data is profoundly flawed. For the past seven years, we have held public hearings on the needs of the schools in our district, including their space requirements and enrollment trends, as part of the mandated annual capital planning process.

This has given us a unique lens into the District One school infrastructure  as it relates to future development.

Throughout these hearings and the capital funding allocation process, we have consistently found that DoE’s official capacity and utilization figures and formulas do not adequately assess how much space is needed in our schools and how it  is used to educate children of varying backgrounds and abilities.

While the DoE reports that our community schools are “underutilized” on average, and that District One has excess school capacity, we join with many other community groups and elected officials in finding  that this assessment is biased and wholly inaccurate.

In a recent survey of principals, co-sponsored by the City Council, fifty-four percent of principals reported enrollment at their own school was not capped at a level to prevent overcrowding. Nearly half stated that the official utilization rate reported by the Department of Education at their own school was inaccurate; and more than half of principals at schools rated “underutilized” claimed that their official rating was incorrect.

Eighty six percent of respondents declared that class sizes at their schools were too large to provide a quality education – and that the primary factors that prevent them from reducing class size are a lack of control over enrollment and space.

DoE’s formulas do not allow for reasonable class size, or for sufficient space to be dedicated to enrichment and intervention like science, art, music, movement, dance, academic intervention, guidance and therapy (occupational, physical and speech), access to a library, to computer technology, a gymnasium, and science labs.

To make matters worse, the DoE’s School Construction Authority (SCA) relies upon a number of faulty assumptions and flawed formulae that have resulted in severely underprojecting enrollment trends across the city, including in our community.  The two consulting companies they use predicted that enrollment would not increase citywide until at least 2016 – but this occurred already in 2009, and enrollment is expected to increase again next year.

These consultants (the Grier Partnership and Statistical Forecasting) also predicted declining enrollment in the district ( one) through 2016 (1).

The greatest increase in elementary school enrollment in Manhattan has occurred in District One, up 8.2% between 2006-08, according to the DoE’s own capacity and enrollment data.[2]

These two systemic failures – an inability to properly project enrollment growth, and mismeasuring how much space is needed in our schools- has resulted in chronic school overcrowding across the city and in our schools.

There is not a single new school planned for our district in the city’s five year capital plan, despite rapid development. In a September 2009 report, entitled “School Daze: Fuzzy Numbers Mean Overcrowded Schools”, the Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer and his staff documented the “vast mismatch between new residential growth and the city’s plans for building new schools.”[3] The report notes that new residential construction in the 4 community boards below 14th street added a projected 2400 plus seats in ES/MS from 2000-2007, based on building permits issued. Yet, during that same period fewer than 150 new seats were added to those neighborhoods where the building occurred.[4]

Extensive housing development on the LES and in the East Village, combined with the flawed methodology of the DoE’s School Construction Authority are likely to result in continued growth in the local school-age population. Without the addition of new school buildings, we can expect the neighborhood to experience the same type of school overcrowding felt now in nearby-districts. Schools in the West Village, Tribeca, and eastern midtown, like many in the Upper East and West Side, have experienced large numbers of students on waiting lists for Kindergarten for the past two years.[5]

In District One we already see early warning signs of school overcrowding. As class sizes increase citywide, the greatest increases in Kindergarten class size in New York City are taking place in District One, which are up 22% since 2007.

In 2009, seven of the 30 District One schools were enrolled at or over capacity, according to the DoE’s own methodology; some 15 elementary schools had more applicants than seats available; 5 schools had waiting lists for entry, and an additional 5 schools exceeded the SCA’s recommended capacity levels of 85%, a level that allows schools to program critical enrichment and intervention programs. In many of our schools, special education students are provided their mandated services in hallways and in closets; and there is not enough room for students to take gym at the mandated state minimum amount.

The pedagogical values and traditions of District One schools, such as small schools, choice, small class sizes, and all day pre-K in every school, have contributed to making District One the most improved large school district in New York state over the past decade.

These effective reforms require sufficient space to meet the real needs of real students.

As 85% of our community schools already share with one or more schools in district buildings, they require careful programming of shared spaces, such as hallways, lunch areas, gyms and play yards.

The DoE likes to claim that empowered school leaders are able to decide on class and school size. However, under the DoE’s centralized admissions process, school principals no longer are able to cap enrollment at acceptable levels, and  the DoE admits students directly, by-passing schools altogether.

The SCA has been offered and already passed up on several opportunities to build schools as part of recent development, because of its flawed accounting and analysis, including during the Cooper Square development process. Prior to the selection of the Avalon Bay developers, bidders were told to ignore community demand for the inclusion of a new school for the community facility; a wrongheaded decision based on their inaccurate assessment of the district’s space needs.

We cannot let another opportunity slip by to provide adequate space to ensure a quality education for the growing number of children in our community. Let’s get the facts straight, this time around, and build, literally, for our children’s future and tomorrow’s leaders.

-The Community Education Council of District One


1. Enrollment Projections 2007-2016 by Statistical Forecasting http://schools.nyc.gov/Offices/SCA/Reports/CapPlan/SFEnrollmentProjections2007-2016.htm
Enrollment Projections 2003-2012 by the Grier Partnership
Enrollment Projections 2008-2017 by Statistical Forecasting

2. DoE SCA’s annual Blue Books
Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report 2008-2009
Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report 2007-2008
Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report 2006-2007

3. “School Daze: Fuzzy Numbers Mean Overcrowded Schools” Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer, September 2009,  p.1

4. Ibid

5. http://www.cecd2.net/site_res_view_folder.aspx?id=146156c3-bf9d-4654-b12a-0809c2ac44b3

The Lo-Down welcomes contributions from readers.  Email submissions for consideration.

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  1. Hear, hear! This is precisely the sort of spirited community engagement with the SPURA planning process that we need at Community Board planning meetings.

    Mr. Shapiro did say that a new public school would be low on the City’s list of priorities. Let us hope that he and the Community Board committee are responsive to community-generated scenarios.

    GOLES looks forward to the possibility of working in tandem with the Community Education Council of District 1 and any other forward-thinking community group in developing community-generated scenarios.

    Just one guy — Robert Moses — decided to tear SPURA down. It will take all of us to build it back up.

  2. Having spent a little bit of time serving on CEC 1 and having exposure to the argument that the CEC presents in the Op-Ed regarding District 1 space issues, I certainly agree, except for one very key point as it relates directly to SPURA.

    Unless the school zone boundaries are changed, the area within the sites being considered as part of the SPURA program and that offer the bulk (if not all) of future housing and the capacity to site a new school are located in DOE’s Manhattan District 2, not District 1. That is not to say that space is not an issue in District 2 as well, we all know it is. However, D2 school assignments are done differently than D1’s (home address determines individual school zone vs. D1’s district of choice) and since I don’t know if there is or will be over or under demand in the immediate vicinity of SPURA for a new D2 school, this is something that would need to be researched.

    To be clear, without a change in school zone boundaries and if we could get a new D1 school to work on sites 7, 8, & 9, that school would not be doing anything to absorb the new residents located in the sites below Delancey who are both in D2 and are located where the bulk, if not the entirety, of the housing would likely be.

    Here’s a URL for the zoning map for a visual: http://maps.nycboe.net/index.asp?cssID=&action=zoomin&search=Address&XMn=981784.3&XMx=995281.9&YMn=196219.6&YMx=205900.2&Stadr=&zval=0&mapx=169&mapy=156&layer9=unchecked&layer10=unchecked&layer11=unchecked&layer12=checked&layer13=unchecked&layer14=unchecked&layer15=unchecked&layer21=unchecked&layer22=unchecked&layer23=unchecked&layer24=unchecked&layer25=unchecked&layer26=unchecked&layer27=unchecked&layer28=checked&layer29=unchecked&layer30=checked

  3. This oped is exactly on-target. There is little point in building more affordable housing, esp. for families, without ensuring that there is space to educate the children living in these units. The DOE’s formula is totally inaccurate, and does not account for the need for smaller classes, preK, arts and all the critical components of a quality education. Its enrollment targets are way off base as well; and District 2 schools are even more overcrowded than those in District 1. Nearly all D2 schools, especially those downtown, are already far over capacity, including those near this proposed project.

    Moreover, most of the new schools that have been built in Manhattan in recent years, including downtown, have been part of mixed use developments. It is time to do real community planning and require that schools be included as a critical element in any large-scale development that goes forward.

  4. I could not agree more with the oped. It is irrelevant which school district the development will be sited. Schools in the vicinity in both D1 and D2 are near, at or above capacity even according to the DOE analysis, which often underestimates the reality.

    To plan for schools AFTER the development is too late – many school districts across the city are paying the price for this lack of foresight today. Housing = families = schools. It is as simple as that.

    This city needs both affordable housing AND schools – they are not mutually exclusive. Let’s think of this as an opportunity for intelligent and creative planning, not as a hurdle.

  5. “The Department of Education doesn’t believe a new school should be a priority in the SPURA development plan!?!”
    Where has the DOE been? Clearly LES public schools are overcrowded and in desperate need of more schools, and when you consider the increased population that the SPURA development will bring to existing crowded schools, I really wonder if the DOE has been paying attention or care about the children and families under their regime. Thank you for posting an op-ed that more accurately reflects the realities of the needs of the LES community.

  6. Since there have been a few comments about this story, I want to make sure there’s a clear understanding about what SPURA facilitator John Shapiro said at last month’s meeting. While he indicated a school did not seem like a big priority within DOE, he added:

    “One moment we thought we could use one. The next moment we thought we couldn’t use one. The final conclusion is there is no conclusion. District 2 is at capacity. That’s where the site is. District 1 is under capacity. They have done no projections as to population. So they’re building new schools to meet their current need but they don’t know about their future need. So you might want to hold a site in reserve for a school but it doesn’t seem to me to be a driving option unless this group wants to go to a charter school.”

    In the end, Shapiro told the committee the issue deserved further study.

  7. I don’t understand this; why the apparent bias for a charter school? Shouldn’t the communities’ highest priority be to ensure a quality education for our district public school students?

  8. We have so blurred the private/public boundary in NYC over the past 10 years that already in this conversation the word charter is being planted?

    I would suggest that CB3 talk to CB1 as all of the schools in our neighborhood have been sited by them and parents. Our two newest schools are not even open yet (they are being incubated at Tweed)and we are already calling for another school we are so crowded. Maybe people are not parent advocates (and therefore more informed about school issues) but even by reading the NY Times real estate section or walking down the street one gets a sense of the population growth.

    I know that this is a very radical thought, but, can’t we all agree that neighborhoods need schools? Schools that service all of our children-not charters. Public schools for the public good! Remember when schools had science rooms, art rooms, study rooms, lunch rooms, class rooms-let’s do that!

    PLANNYC2030 has no schools in it. Beware-fight with all you have to preserve the right to educate your children!

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