Volume 74, Number 19 | September 08 - 14 , 2004

Back to School

A special Villager Supplement

Villager file photo by Ramin Talaie

Children from Manhattan Youth’s day camp gathered in the P.S. 234 schoolyard earlier this summer. Many will be returning to a more crowded school this month. At left is Bob Townley, director of Manhattan Youth.

Overcrowding problem is growing at P.S. 234

By Ronda Kaysen

Sandy Bridges, principal of P.S. 234, has about 10 more students in her small Tribeca neighborhood school than she did last year and nowhere to put them. Desperate for classrooms, the computer lab suddenly looks like a viable option.

“We had to close our computer lab and put our computers onto laptops and carts,” said Bridges. She hired a new teacher and added an additional kindergarten and first grade class to this year’s roster. “My problem isn’t staffing, it’s space,” she said.

P.S. 234 is facing another year of overcrowding. With a housing boom in full swing, the school cannot keep up. In 1980, according to census figures, there were 15,918 people living south of Canal St. and west of Park Row; in 2000, the neighborhood population had ballooned to a staggering 34,420; of those, 6,280 are families. With P.S. 234’s test scores among the highest in the city, residents generally opt for public school for their children.

P.S. 234’s zone is one of the largest in the city, and although Bridges has requested that the Department of Education create a new zone, she is not optimistic. “It will take years [to create a new zone] and a hideous battle,” she said. “I don’t want the powers that be let this problem become such a crisis that they run a wonderful school into the ground.”

Enrollment at P.S. 234 jumped by 12 percent over the past two years from 640 students in the 2002 school year to about 715 this year. The school has a capacity of 585. Most of the new students are in the lower grades.

“I walk past Washington Market [Park] and see loads of three year olds,” said Bridges. For Bridges, toddlers milling about the park that abuts her school translate to future kindergarteners. “Their public school is so good, it’s saving [parents] $20,000 a year” in private school costs.

Neighboring P.S. 150, the Tribeca Learning Center, is not faced with an overcrowding crisis because it is an option school and therefore not required to accept all students in its zone. “I don’t have to take anyone,” said Principal Alyssa Pollack. “When I’m full I’m full.” P.S. 150 is close to full enrollment now with about 190 students.

There are plans in the works to alleviate P.S. 234’s overcrowding crisis. The vacant lot behind P.S. 234, Site 5C, is slated for development by Jack Resnick & Sons. The Resnick company unveiled plans at a June Economic Development Corporation meeting for a 35-story, market-rate rental building with about 480 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail space, a 90-car parking garage and a community facility. The Resnick company offered about 10,000 square feet of space to the Department of Education — space that will be used to build eight additional P.S. 234 classrooms.

But the development of lot 5C, which will also bring additional families to the neighborhood, is still a long way off — the plan still must complete a lengthy public review process before ground can break and many residents oppose the building because of its proposed size. In the meantime, the Department of Education has proposed bringing in trailers next year to use as additional classrooms. For Bridges, the proposal is problematic, to say the least. “Where would we put a trailer?” she said. “We have a playground, which we actually desperately need. There’s a dog run and those dog people don’t want to lose that.”

The Department of Education did not return calls for comment.

Until more permanent space is built, Bridges sees the problem escalating with each passing year. Because she added a new kindergarten class last year, she needed to respond with a new first grade classroom this year. Next year, the new first grade class will need a second grade classroom. This year’s new kindergarten class will also need a new first grade class of its own next year.

“We’ve managed to adjust so far,” said Kevin Fisher, P.T.A. president and a parent of two P.S. 234 students. “As each year passes it gets harder and harder to make that adjustment.”

Bridges is considering shuttering the school’s pre-kindergarten program and replacing it with an art room so that the old art room can serve as a new classroom. “If we had to lose the pre-K, that’s the program that’s been really valuable,” said Fisher. “It ushers the kids into [P.S. 234] in a really good way. That would be a detriment to the school.”

Despite the crowding problem, Bridges is confident that she can maintain the school’s excellent reputation — at least for a while. “We’re a wonderful school, we’ll manage,” said Bridges. “But to lose a science room, you can’t really affectively teach science on a cart. It breaks my heart.”

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