CHELSEA — Thousands of classes across the city are overflowing with too many students — and the problem is especially bad in special education classes, the United Federation of Teachers said Tuesday.
A UFT survey found 6,220 overcrowded classrooms in city schools in mid-September, including 270 overcrowded special education classrooms in general education schools, more than twice as many as there were at this time last year.
"This is very disturbing to us," said Michael Mulgrew, the UFT's president. "When you have smaller classes, you allow teachers to dedicate more time to each individual student. It's common sense."
Mulgrew blamed the uptick in overcrowded special education classrooms on the Department of Education's new effort to mainstream special education students by enrolling them in their local zoned school rather than sending them to specialized, centralized programs.
This fall, for the first time, the DOE required schools to serve all their zoned students, including those with special needs — a prospect that stretched many schools' resources, because some students required classes with as few as eight or 12 students.
Mulgrew said he has heard from many principals that they were not able to create such small classes — which means that hundreds of special education students started the year in classes that were larger than what their IEP, or individualized education plan, required, the UFT said.
"Our fears seem to be coming true," Mulgrew said.
A Department of Education spokeswoman said the city has hired 700 new special education teachers this year, a 4 percent increase. The spokeswoman added that the city would be able to hire even more teachers if the UFT would allow the city to dismiss teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, who are not currently working in a classroom.
"If Mr. Mulgrew does in fact share this [class size] concern, he should accept our many proposals to stop paying those in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool who are draining resources that could otherwise be used to put permanent, effective teachers in the classroom," the DOE spokeswoman said in an email.
Mulgrew and education advocates unveiled the UFT's class size numbers Tuesday outside the New York City Museum School on West 17th Street, where teachers and students said overcrowding has become a bigger problem this year.
"We've had a large increase in the number of students in our classes," said Amanda Fletcher, a Spanish teacher at Museum for the past five years. "When there are more than 34 students in a class, it becomes nearly impossible…. It breaks my heart."
Marie-Claire Chaudoir, a Japanese teacher at the school, said her largest class this fall has 36 students, making it tough to ensure everyone is keeping up with learning such a challenging new language.
"It's very difficult to give the kids the individual attention they need," she said.
Overall, the number of overcrowded classes in the city is actually down about 11 percent this year, but the total number of schools with overcrowding grew from 660 last year to 670 this year, the UFT said.
The most overcrowded schools this fall include Benjamin Cardozo High School and Forest Hills High School in Queens, which both had more than 240 classes that were too big, the UFT said.
Under the UFT's contract with the city, class size limits are 18 for pre-K, 25 for kindergarten, 32 for first through sixth grade, 30 to 33 for middle school and 34 for high school.
The UFT plans to use court-mandated arbitrators to force the city to reduce class sizes. Last year, 95 percent of the overcrowded classes were eventually reduced in size, but it took seven months to accomplish, Mulgrew said.
Students at the Museum School said they noticed more people packed into their classes this year — especially in gym, where there are often more than the maximum 50 students.
"It's a hazard," said Ajani Hill-Lopez, 17, a senior at Museum, who has more than 65 kids in her gym class. She said the gym is far too crowded to play a sport like basketball, so the gym teacher has them play tag and other big-group games.
Makayla Alleyne, 16, a junior from Queens, said this is the first year she can remember having a math class with the maximum 34 students.
"It can be hard sometimes," Alleyne said.
She added that she would like to see smaller classes "so everybody gets enough teacher time and everybody learns."