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Fire Drill Evacuation Delay at P.S. 199 Shows Crisis of Crowding, PTA Says

By Emily Frost | October 30, 2015 5:14pm | Updated on November 2, 2015 8:56am
 Students were alarmed by the delayed evacuation at P.S. 199, the PTA said.
Students were alarmed by the delayed evacuation at P.S. 199, the PTA said.
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DNAinfo/Emily Frost

UPPER WEST SIDE — A group of fifth-graders at a school with serious overcrowding issues became bottlenecked trying to leave the building during a fire drill last month — leading one student to ask what could have happened in a real emergency, parents said.

P.S. 199, which currently houses 904 students in a building designated for 738 students, is facing an overcrowding crisis that could have real consequences for children moving in and out of the school safely, the school's PTA said. 

During the West 70th Street school's first fire drill of the year, in late September, fifth-graders on the third floor had to wait in a hallway for an extended period before evacuating, explained PTA co-president Andrea Steinkamp.

"It was long enough for a kid to ask the question, 'Should we just be standing here' and [provoked] that little sense of unease, 'What if this was a real fire?'" said Steinkamp, who could not give an estimate for how long the delay lasted. "It wasn’t the fastest fire drill time in the book."

Another P.S. 199 PTA member wrote to Community Education Council 3 anonymously to say that because of the congestion, the students "finally made it out of the school, but it was very late into the drill."

Members of CEC 3, the local elected parent body that represents the district, were outraged.

"If there’s a fire… we could lose some kids. That is ridiculous," said CEC 3 member Kim Watkins at a recent meeting to discuss plans to rezone the district. "We need to develop a plan that gets 199 to a safe place."

Parents report that classes at P.S. 199 have more than 30 students, creating issues moving them in and out of the building.

"It’s difficult for us to get all of our students in the building on time in the morning," Steinkamp said. "There’s so many kids we're trying to get in the building safely and smoothly... There’s only so many doorways, there’s only so many stairwells."

The crunch is not just affecting safety issues and classroom learning, but it's also cutting into the time of administrators and the principal, she added. 

"The reality is they’re getting stretched thinner and thinner," Steinkamp said. "They’re spending so much time and energy on space planning."

After the fire drill, Principal Louise Xerri and her team worked out a new plan that they believe will fix the congestion issues, she added, without providing further details.

Neither the Department of Education nor Principal Xerri returned requests for comment.

The PTA is pushing the CEC to pass a new zoning plan, even if it's only an interim solution, that would make fewer students eligible for P.S. 199 and help alleviate overcrowding.

The DOE has presented a plan that would rezone neighborhood blocks that had been part of the P.S. 199 zone and instead make them part of the P.S. 452 or P.S. 191 zones. However, the CEC rejected the plan and hasn't come to a consensus on a new one, despite a Nov. 19 deadline set by the DOE. 

In the previous two years due to a long waiting list, the DOE created extra kindergarten classes, but the PTA wants that number capped at five so that the school can start to shrink its population. 

At a recent town hall with Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, P.S. 199 parents were so frustrated they began yelling at the chancellor about the school having 32 students to a class. 

"We have choices to make here. Do you keep the waitlist long or do you take on the extra kids with extra support? We chose the extra kids and the extra support," Fariña told parents. 

The proposed zoning plan is supposed to help, she said. 

"In terms of the overcrowding, it’s part of the reason we’re asking for rezoning," Fariña said.

Meanwhile, P.S. 199's PTA is desperate for change.

"We really need the CEC to take action and pass some sort of rezoning plan," Steinkamp said. "The status quo is not OK."

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