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Murray Bergtraum Most Overcrowded School in Manhattan, Union Says

By Julie Shapiro | September 22, 2011 4:48pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — Overcrowded classrooms are nothing new to John Elfrank-Dana, a history teacher at Murry Bergtraum High School — but this year, he said, is worse than usual.  

"You walk in and people are standing because there's not enough seats," said Elfrank-Dana, the school's United Federation of Teachers chapter leader, whose classes have up to 37 students.

"You're like, 'Oh my god, how am I going to deal with this?'"

As of last week, Murry Bergtraum High School, on Pearl Street near the Brooklyn Bridge, had 104 overcrowded classes, more than any other school in Manhattan, the UFT said.

The UFT defines an overcrowded class as those with more than the maximum number of students mandated by the UFT contract, which is 34 for high school.

John Elfrank-Dana, history teacher at Murry Bergtraum High School, said the overcrowded classes are worse this year than in previous years.
John Elfrank-Dana, history teacher at Murry Bergtraum High School, said the overcrowded classes are worse this year than in previous years.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

"It's a tremendous loss for kids [who are] high-need," Elfrank-Dana said. "This is the worst we've ever seen."

Elfrank-Dana joined UFT President Michael Mulgrew outside Murry Bergtraum Thursday afternoon to slam the city for allowing class sizes to swell across all five boroughs.

As of last week, 6,978 classes across the city — 845 of them in Manhattan — had more students than the UFT's contract limit, an increase of nearly 1,000 overcrowded classes compared to the same time last year, Mulgrew said. 

While the total number of classrooms in the city was not immediately clear, the overcrowded classes has an average of 38 students citywide.

"We cannot continue this trend," Mulgrew said, blaming the city for slashing school budgets and reducing the number of teachers in the system. "We have to stop this craziness."

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, said the overcrowding in the city's classrooms amounts to "third-world conditions" and makes it more difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn.

A Department of Education spokesman acknowledged the growth in class size but said quality teachers would mitigate the impact.

"We are still finalizing our class size reports, but we do expect class sizes to rise modestly as a consequence of nearly $1.7 billion in state and federal budget cuts that have forced us to do more with less," the DOE spokesman said in a statement.

"But we believe that getting effective teachers into every classroom is the most important stepping stone to student success, and we will continue to work toward that goal.”

At Murry Bergtraum, a high school that draws students from all over the city, classes had as many as 41 students as of last week, well above the union limit of 34, Mulgrew said.

The school received a "D" on its last two city progress reports and last December staff struggled to quell violent outbursts among students there.

While the school has calmed down since then, Elfrank-Dana said the large class sizes — and the subsequent reshuffling of student schedules during the first month of school to reduce them — do not help in creating a positive academic environment.

Sam Khan, 17, a Murry Bergtraum senior from the Bronx, said his schedule was changed four times in the first two weeks of school, as administrators moved students around to balance class sizes.

"It was kind of a hassle, [but] now it's fine," said Khan, who added that students seem calmer this year than last year.

Barry Thornton, 18, a senior from Harlem, said he was used to the school's bulging classrooms and didn't think the problem was worse this year.

"The school's always been crowded," Thornton said. "I don't think it really matters. All you want to do is just learn and get out."