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Reduce Francis Lewis HS overcrowding: Protesters

By Howard Koplowitz

Elected officials, parents, teachers and union officials rallied Friday outside Francis Lewis HS to urge Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott to alleviate overcrowding at the Fresh Meadows school and demanded that they do not cut teachers as planned.

Francis Lewis is supposed to hold 2,100 students, but more than 4,200 go there, according to Arthur Goldstein, an English as a Second Language teacher and United Federation of Teachers representative for the school.

“This is such a serious issue for us here in northeast Queens,” said City Councilman Mark Weprin (D-Oakland Gardens), who noted Bloomberg is proposing to cut 6,000 teachers.

“What do you think that’s going to do to overcrowding? It’s going to make the problem even worse,” Weprin said.

Goldstein said the mayor’s plan includes letting three teachers go from Francis Lewis, but said even more jobs at the school will be lost because some will be transferred to new schools that Bloomberg is planning to open.

“We will have far fewer teachers under Mike Bloomberg’s plan. Mike Bloomberg’s plan is a disgrace,” Goldstein said.

Leslie O’Grady, co-PTA president at Francis Lewis, said overcrowding is such a problem that lunch starts at 9 a.m., gym classes run around the halls because there is no gym space and some classes need to steal desks from other classrooms because there are not enough.

Khaair Morrison, a 17-year-old senior at Francis Lewis, said Bloomberg “has been denying students and teachers … their rights.”

“Four thousand kids, it’s worse than Times Square,” Khaair said. “For kids to eat lunch at 9 in the morning, it’s disgraceful.”

Leonie Haimson of the nonprofit Class Size Matters said 73 percent to 77 percent of Queens high school students attended “severely overcrowded” schools over the last three years and that 64,000 pupils were in such a school last year.

Despite overcrowding, Haimson said the city has only committed to creating 1,500 additional school seats in the borough, or 2 percent of the actual need.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said the city is putting stress on successful schools like Francis Lewis when it should be helping them.

“Every challenge they’ve thrown in front of you, you’ve overcome it and gave children a great education,” Mulgrew told the crowd, who held up signs like “Remove Snow, Not Teachers,” and “Remove the Senior Mayor, Not Senior Teachers.”

“It’s supposed to be, ‘How do we help school children to get ahead?’” Mulgrew said.

The union head criticized the city Department of Education for not visiting Queens schools so it can learn what each school needs and called Bloomberg’s plan to ax 6,000 teachers “a political game which is only about him and his ego.”

“If you want to know the challenges a school faces, you have to go to it,” Mulgrew said.

On his first day as chancellor, Walcott visited the Fresh Meadows school, where he once roamed the halls, and said he was aware of its needs, pledging to help the school’s overcrowding situation by investigating whether new students actually live within Francis Lewis’ zones.

At that time, the school said it believed about 40 percent of its students are using a false address to attend the school.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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