By Rich Bockmann
At a borough board meeting earlier this week, the Bloomberg administration gave a presentation on the 13 district schools it opened this year that it said will provide high-quality options to thousands of students by the time they are enrolled at full scale in the coming years.
But of the of the approximately 5,700 seats the city Department of Education said this baker’s dozen of new institutions will provide, about one-third are the product of a zero-sum game in which the department has eliminated seats from existing schools, and only a handful of students began the new school year in a newly constructed building.
Space for nearly 2,000 seats that will fill five of the schools the DOE opened in September was made either by reducing enrollment, eliminating grades or completely phasing out existing institutions.
In Flushing, two new specialized schools, the Veritas Academy and the Queens High School for Language Studies, opened this year inside Flushing High School’s building. By 2016, they will have a combined enrollment of about 860 students, the same number of seats the administration plans to cut from Flushing, which was identified last year as one of the state’s poorest-performing schools.
Likewise, the DOE said the new Emerson School in South Jamaica will largely recover the approximately 365 seats cut from the Richard S. Grossley middle school, which was placed on the state Education Department’s list of persistently dangerous schools last year.
At P.S. 156 in Laurelton, the city began a three-year process earlier this month of eliminating the school’s sixth, seventh and eight grades while opening the new Queens United Middle School, which will serve about 300 students in the same grades.
Those plans differ significantly from the phase-outs of two schools at the Campus Magnet complex in Cambria Heights. Beginning this year two high schools at the campus began reducing enrollment, and by 2015 they will be completely phased out. In their place, the approximately 440-seat Institute for Health Professions opened its doors this year, and the DOE is considering plans to open another school at the campus next fall.
All told, about 34 percent of this year’s new seats simply replace ones being eliminated, and the majority of the remaining desks find themselves sharing space with other schools.
The Hunters Point Community Middle School is the lone institution to open this year in a newly constructed building. The school, which the DOE said will be home to about 400 students when it is fully phased in, shares its new digs with the Academy for Careers in Television and Film technical high school, which was housed last year in the same building as the Oliver Holmes School in Dutch Kills.
At the East Elmhurst Educational Campus, the Corona Arts and Sciences Academy opened its doors for its inaugural year alongside the Pan American International High School as it waits for its new home to be completed in 2016. The DOE originally planned to give Corona Arts its own campus in 2015, but construction delays have the department now floating a plan to extend the co-location.
For other new institutions, the DOE has found partners with Catholic schools willing to lease out unused space for public school students. Both the East Elmhurst Community School and the Middle Village Preparatory Charter School opened inside Catholic schools this year.
In western Queens’ District 24, among the most overcrowded in the city, the department cannot keep up with the growing student population.
Nick Comaianni, president of the area’s Community Education Council parents group, said the cramped classroom problem has two parts: finding an appropriate site for a school and getting the city to pay for it.
“We have a budget for about 1,200 seats, and that’s not going to solve the overcrowding,” he said. “We would need a lot more seats than that. I’d say thousands more.”
In other locations, the city has found unused space in buildings where it can open schools.
August Martin High School in South Jamaica and the Virgil I. Grissom School in South Ozone Park were both identified by the BOE as underused and new schools opened in their buildings.
During its presentation the DOE said potential scenarios for new construction include opening five new buildings next year, six in 2015 and another three the following year.
Rachel Paster, president of the CEC for District 30, which covers Long Island City, Astoria and Woodside, said attendees at the borough board meeting were frustrated with the jargon the department used when talking about new schools.
“They were particularly offended with what the DOE was saying about high-quality schools,” she said. “What does that mean we have in our neighborhoods now — low-quality schools?”
Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4574.