Loud Trains Disrupt Classes at Queens School, Parents Say

By Jeanmarie Evelly on December 18, 2013 9:37am 

Slideshow
 Parents and local leaders say the rumble of the N/Q outside P.S. 85 is disrupting students' learning.
Parents, Students Rally Against Subway Noise at P.S. 85
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ASTORIA — A group of parents at Queens elementary school say the noise from nearby subway trains is putting students' learning off track.

Parents at P.S. 85 in Astoria, which is directly adjacent to the elevated N/Q line, say the rumble of passing trains — which can top out at 90 decibels, double the allowable limit in new schools — is so loud that it interrupts learning. Both teachers and students forced to halt lessons every few minutes to wait for the train to pass.

"They all have learned since kindergarten to stop and pause when the train is going by," said Parent Association co-president Evie Hantzopoulos, whose daughter is in third grade at the school.

Students and teachers make use of a hand signal — a peace sign — throughout the day to indicate when they can no longer hear someone speaking.

Parents and local leaders held a rally in front of the school at 23-70 31st St. on Monday, a press conference punctuated by frequent breaks in speeches as those who spoke had to stop each time a train passed.

"This doesn't happen just once or twice during the school days — during rush hour it happens every few minutes," State Sen. Aravella Simotas said at the rally. "The children lose about 15 percent of their learning time each and every day, and that is unfair."

Simotas and other local elected officials have joined parents in calling on the Department of Education and the MTA to make upgrades to both the school building and the nearby subway tracks to lessen the noise.

The group is calling for improvements like installing soundproof windows and acoustic sound-absorbing tiles, cushioning the train rails with rubber pads, erecting a "sound barrier" wall between the train platform and the school and upgrading the building's electrical system so air conditioners can be installed, allowing classrooms to keep their windows closed during warm weather.

"They can do amazing things here, if they just did it," said Rebecca Bratspies, a professor with CUNY Law’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform, which has been working with P.S. 85 parents to measure the extent of the train noise at the school.

Her recent measurements in some of the classrooms registered the train noise as high as 90 decibels — well over the 45 decibels-standard the School Construction Authority requires for new schools, Bratspies said.

The MTA said the noise issue at P.S. 85 is a difficult one to fix because the terminal switches for the Ditmars Boulevard station are located right by the school, according to a spokesman for the agency.

"These switches are scheduled for replacement in the next capital plan (2015-2019). In the meantime, we have dispatched crews to tighten any loose bolts or joints that may contribute to noise," spokesman Kevin Ortiz wrote in an email.

A DOE spokeswoman said that several classrooms at the school already have sound-absorbing tiles, and denied that classroom instruction is being interrupted by the trains, citing the school's academic performance as evidence.

"This is a high performing school that received an A on its recent Progress Report," the DOE spokeswoman said in an email.

But parents and experts say evidence shows otherwise.

Arline Bronzaft, who has spent decades researching the effects of noise, pointed to a study she conducted at a similarly situated public school, P.S. 98, in Inwood in the 1970s.

She tracked students and found that those who had classes on the train-facing side of the building were about a year behind in reading compared to those whose classes were on the quiet side. The students' scores improved once noise abatement measures were installed.

"We know that if we create a quiet environment, children will do better," she said.

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