UPPER WEST SIDE — Parents and education leaders on the Upper West Side are growing increasingly distressed about a ballooning elementary school population they say will strain the district's middle schools and force kids to look outside the neighborhood for a sixth-grade seat.
They said they're frustrated the Department of Education hasn't addressed what they see as a pressing need, as new buildings continue to crop up in the neighborhood, potentially bringing in even more families.
"We clearly have a bubble — we clearly have a need for middle school space," said Noah Gotbaum, urging DOE officials at a recent meeting to create new middle school seats. "You gotta make it happen and happen quickly."
According to the New York State Education Department's last two report cards for the Upper West Side's District 3, the district's fourth grade grew from 1,238 students in the 2008-'09 school year to 1,448 students in the 2011-'12 school year. The fifth grade followed a similar pattern, growing from 1,319 in the 2008-'09 school year to 1,418 in the 2011-'12 school year, records show.
The district's second grade grew from 1,380 students in the 2008-'09 year to 1,571 students in the 2011-'12 school year, according to the state. And first grade grew from 1,382 in 2008-'09 to 1,510 in 2011-'12. The third grade grew less dramatically, from 1,320 in 2008-'09 to 1,367 in 2011-'12, according to enrollment records.
Eric Shuffler, PTA president at P.S. 199, said landing a middle school seat creates a huge amount of anxiety among parents, calling it the No. 1 stressor for elementary school parents.
"The process is exceptionally complicated, the amount of seats are limited, the nearby choices are limited, and the competition is fierce and getting harder every year," he said.
The number of fifth-graders at P.S. 199, for example, has jumped significantly over the past few years — from 85 in the 2011-'12 school year to 120 last year, he said.
Shuffler said 130 are expected to graduate this year and 140 the year after, based on the current numbers of fourth-graders.
The problem stems from a growing elementary school population, which the DOE addressed in part by building the new elementary school P.S. 452 on West 77th Street, said Marisa Maack, chairwoman of Community Board 7's education committee.
"By 2015, the current overall [District 3] middle school seat capacity will not meet the numbers of graduating fifth-graders," she said.
The DOE countered that there are enough middle school seats in the district to meet demand.
"There are currently enough middle schools seats in the district to meet the needs of the 2015–2016 middle school class," said DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield. "As we always do, we will continue to listen to feedback from the community and consider their needs moving forward."
The DOE did not, however, respond to a request for data on the current middle school capacity in the district or analysis of the perceived growing demand for middle school seats.
Parents said they're frustrated because they believe the DOE isn't taking a proactive approach to long-term planning.
"It seems to me that the cart is coming before the horse. I haven’t heard anything about a needs assessment," said Mark Seeman, an elementary school parent, at a meeting with DOE officials last month. "What do we need?"
Maack said the Beacon High School building, which will be vacated by the fall of 2015, would help if part of the building became a middle school.
The DOE has asked for community feedback on the future of the Beacon space, but has not made any promises beyond that.