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School Plan Would Cram 46 Kids Into Single Queens Classroom

By Amy Zimmer | February 19, 2014 7:52am
 Parents oppose the DOE's plan to put up to 46 children in a single room during P.S. 11's construction.
P.S. 11 Plan to Fix Overcrowding
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QUEENS — Parents didn’t complain when their kindergartners at P.S. 11 were crammed into rooms of as many as 40 children this year.

The kindergarten classrooms at Woodside's well-regarded Kathryn M. Phelan school on Skillman Avenue each have co-teachers, keeping the teacher-to-student ratio small enough to be legal — though having that many kids in the spaces violated building codes, parents said.

Still, parents believed that next year their children would be placed in normal-sized classes.

Now they fear the situation could actually get much worse.

A plan for a $70 million annex to ease overcrowding would keep children in doubled-up sections of as many as 46 students during an estimated two years of construction. The work would shutter the school's deteriorating trailers, which house more than 200 students.

Fearing the project would worsen overcrowding, parents are calling on the Department of Education to rethink where students will go while the addition is built.

“I don't like it, but I figured it would just be one year,” Ellery Sandhu said of her son's current kindergarten class of 40 children.

Under the construction plan, Sandhu's son would spend first grade in a class of 46 kids, inside a 770-square-foot room, even though building codes require at least 920 square feet for that number of students, she said.

Sandhu said that though her son has two “phenomenal” teachers and is “thriving," she doesn't want to gamble on his future.

"Kindergarten through second grade is such an important time," she said. "It’s that make-or-break period in terms of whether kids stay engaged or not, whether they like school or not.”

First- through fifth-graders would be doubled up in 10 classrooms that would violate building codes, according to documents obtained by DNAinfo New York.

“From a life-safety perspective I find it dangerous,” said Deborah McGowan, whose daughter’s kindergarten class has 36 students who eat lunch inside the room and stay in for recess.

“If you have overcrowding in a school, in an emergency you can't evacuate as quickly as needed.”

Adding to the possible hazards, parents worry that some fire exits will be closed during construction, they said.

The school has already been stretched so thin that storage rooms were illegally being used as classrooms and offices, and inside its outmoded classroom trailers — which were intended to be temporary when they were erected more than a decade ago — there were buckets hanging from ceilings to catch leaks, according to violations recorded by the Department of Buildings.

The United Federation of Teachers filed a grievance this year over class sizes, which has yet to be arbitrated, UFT officials confirmed.

“The addition needs to happen. It's very obvious,” McGowan said.  

“We're really at the epicenter of the overcrowding. It's not an easy problem to solve in any way.”

Parents are hoping the DOE finds an alternative — even if that means delaying the project for a year and waiting until P.S. 339, a new school less than a mile away, is open in 2015 and can take many of P.S. 11’s students.

Many parents would prefer that to the current proposal, which would send incoming kindergartners three miles away to Long Island City's P.S. 171 during the first year of construction and then send them, with the next incoming class, to P.S. 339 the second year.

Not only do families fear the bus ride to P.S. 171 would take 45 minutes, but it would mean two subway rides and a 20-minute walk for a parent to pick up a sick kid, parents said.

City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer penned a letter last month asking the DOE to send P.S. 11 students to P.S. 313, a new school slated to open half a mile a way, in Sunnyside, in September.

But that building is in neighboring school district 24, which is overcrowded just like P.S. 11's District 30, and that proposal faced pushback among families there.

Some have also asked the DOE to look for empty Catholic schools in the area to possibly lease.

“I think it's absolutely outrageous that any plan would even contemplate pushing kids into classes as large as 46,” said Leonie Haimson, an advocate from Class Size Matters.

“There has to be a better planning process that doesn’t subject kids to unsafe and clearly harmful conditions that affect their education.”

Haimson was dismayed about the doubled-up classes, adding, “We do believe there are systematic building code violations throughout the city."

Public school parent Jeffrey Guyton has been pushing for P.S. 11’s expansion since he joined District 30’s Community Education Council 11 years ago and doesn’t want a delay, since funding has finally been earmarked.

“I’ve been told by every DOE official there’s a strong chance of losing funding if we wait,” he said.

“I’m not advocating for doubled-up classes or busing kids for long distances, so I would be the happiest if we could find an alternative.”

DOE officials did not address the possible code violations but said they were exploring options to ease the overcrowding. 

“Our aim is to deliver a state-of-the-art addition to the building," DOE spokesman Harry Hartfield said.

"As we consider next steps, we are committed to reaching out to the community and considering all possibilities to achieve that end."