ASTORIA — Hundreds of Queens parents tore into Department of Education officials at Astoria's P.S. 122 Wednesday night, slamming a city proposal to expand the school's general education classes to eighth grade, while dramatically cutting its prestigious gifted and talented program.
At a contentious and emotional community meeting that lasted nearly three hours, dozens of parents, community officials and P.S. 122 alumni — including a graduate from the class of 1939 — came to show their support for the popular neighborhood school and to speak out against the Department of Education's plan.
The meeting turned raucous at times, with several speakers shouting over the responses of the two DOE officials who attended. The P.S. 122 parents argue that adding sixth, seventh and eighth grade general education classes at that school would lead to severe overcrowding and feared that the move was made to make room for a charter school at nearby I.S. 141.
Parent Association president Claudia Lieto-McKenna said the change would force the school to turn its library, art and music rooms and computer and science labs into regular classrooms to fit the extra kids, and to start lunch periods as early as 9:30 a.m.
"How are we going to fit these extra classes in here if we don't lose our resource rooms? We are full to the gills here," she asked DOE representatives at Wednesday's meeting, saying the school's custodians have already converted closets into classroom space.
P.S. 122's general education classes currently end at grade five, while its high-ranking gifted and talented program, called The Academy, goes through eighth grade.
The DOE wants to cut the Academy down to one class per grade — from the three classes per grade that the program offers now — so that general education classes can go through middle school, starting with next year's incoming kindergartners. The changes would go into affect starting in 2019.
"We do believe that there is sufficient space here for zoned students to remain at the school if they choose," DOE representative Rebecca Rawling told the crowd, drawing angry boos from the audience.
Several parents countered that there are currently seven general education kindergarten classes at P.S. 122, with about 30 students in each, and they predict similar numbers for next year's incoming class.
If all of those students remain through eighth grade, it will nearly double the number of middle schoolers in the building compared to the three gifted classes per grade currently enrolled — too many, parents argued, even with the proposed cuts to the Academy.
"Where would we do this?" Lieto-McKenna said. "There are no classrooms in this building."
DOE representative Savita Iyengar told parents the change is being made to comply with a policy that K-8 schools allow every student the opportunity to remain enrolled through middle school.
"The DOE believes this policy ensures equity for every family attending P.S. 122 for elementary school," Iyengar said.
But parents and community members argued that the change would simply lead to a decline at P.S. 122, which they lauded as a draw for young families who move to Ditmars.
Deborah Alexander lives just blocks from the school at 21-21 Ditmars Blvd., and is mom to a two-year-old daughter.
"I was happy to send her here, to the P.S. 122 of today," she said. "But I will not send her to the 122 they're proposing."
Several parents theorized that the DOE wanted to add the middle school to P.S. 122 in order to make space at nearby I.S. 141 — where most P.S. 122 general education students go after fifth grade — in order to co-locate a charter school there.
Eva Moskowitz's controversial Success Academy charter school is looking to open two new locations in District 30.
But Iyengar said there is no correlation between that and the DOE's plans, prompting shouts of "Lies!" from several members of the audience.
"At this moment we do not have any plans for I.S. 141," Iyengar insisted. "There is no connection."
She said the DOE will be looking to finalize its plan for P.S. 122 soon, and will take the community's feedback into account.
But most at the meeting were skeptical.
"One of the things we keep hearing is that this is in response to community feedback," said Michelle Noris, a member of the Community Education Council for District 30.
"I have not heard one person say, 'We want to extend the general education program to a K-8, and overcrowd P.S. 122,'" she said.