Last Updated: 10:14 AM, November 1, 2009
Posted: 11:24 PM, October 31, 2009
Kids eating lunch before 10 a.m. Gym classes operating in hallways. Students getting to school at 7 a.m. and leaving at 6 p.m.
This is all typical at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, the most overcrowded public school in the city, where 4,437 kids are being squeezed into a building meant for 2,700.
The A-rated school was forced to add a 13th period to its schedule this year, and has 73 classes with more than the 34-student maximum set by the teachers’ contract, UFT rep and teacher Arthur Goldstein said.
“We’re busting at the seams,” he said. “We can’t sustain this. Eventually, the kids will suffer.”
The Department of Education is trying to help the school — it is not sending any No Child Left Behind transfers there for the next year and is aggressively verifying the addresses of students in the zoned program. It has also pledged to build new schools, adding 10,000 seats to Queens to curb overcrowding at many borough high schools.
But Goldstein and others believe there’s another solution that no one is talking about.
“I absolutely believe that they can make the other schools in the area better,” said Goldstein. “It’s their job to make the other schools better. Better options would spread students out, and everyone would be better off.”
A perfect example is Jamaica High School, a large school located less than three miles south of Francis Lewis. It received a C on its progress report, has attendance rates in the low 70 percentile and a grad rate of only 47%, stats show.
Francis Lewis received almost 13,000 applications — the most in the city — from students eager to go there. Jamaica received 1,580 applications, eight times fewer.
Meanwhile, with 1,416 kids, Jamaica is 700 students under capacity.
“I understand the DOE wants to give parents and students what they want,” said Goldstein. “But they should be focused on getting kids interested in Jamaica so they want to go there. That should be the goal.”
Under Bloomberg, the DOE has already closed several large, failing schools and replaced them with small schools in the same building, each with their own administration and staff. The Post exclusively reported last week a city plan to divide up to 12 troubled, large neighborhood schools into smaller schools, with some run by charter school operators.
In some cases, the start-from-scratch approach is necessary, experts say.
“I think if you’re talking about East New York or other neighborhoods with high concentrations of high risk students, I don’t think there’s much you can do except chop them up,” said New School Prof. Clara Hemphill, who co-authored a June 2009 study analyzing small schools. “There’s fairly strong evidence that big schools with very high concentrations of very needy kids aren’t going to do well no matter what you do.”
“But that’s not the answer everywhere,” she added.
One DOE insider said small schools should be “an option,” but the city “shouldn’t ignore every other possibility,” and should certainly try to “save what we already have in place, the neighborhood schools that become the heartbeat of a community.”
“The answer always seems to be divide large schools, don’t guarantee the zoned kids a seat, shove them somewhere else and move on,” he said. “That can’t be the only option. The city is willing to spend money on new schools and more administration, but they won’t invest in helping what we already have. It makes no sense.”
Experts made several suggestions for improving a school like Jamaica — adding or expanding programs for high-performing students or creating mid-sized schools of 1,500 to 2,000 students, which could offer a variety of course offerings without packed classes.
Hemphill pointed to Jamaica’s Gateway program for medical sciences as one to expand. It received only 312 applications for this year.
“That’s very low,” she said. “A program like that should be highlighted. The school system needs to help the principal identify the school’s strengths and enhance them.”
A DOE source pointed to the specialized Queens High School for the Sciences at York College in Jamaica, which attracts “some of the city’s brightest . . . If students will travel to downtown Jamaica from across the city, they’d travel to Jamaica High School. If they build it, the students will come.”
Jamaica social studies teacher and UFT rep James Eterno said his school “has the dedicated staff and programs” to be successful, but needs a helping hand to become more attractive to students.
“We have the space right now to lower class sizes,” he said. “If we could offer really low class sizes, personal attention, parents would send their kids here. That’s something Francis Lewis can’t offer.”
DOE spokesman Will Havemann said class size is not just tied to space, but also to the number of teachers at the school.
“Principals are free to hire new teachers to reduce their class sizes, but given the city’s financial circumstances, significantly reducing class sized may be prohibitively expensive,” he said.
Eterno called this “a frustrating cycle,” saying the school’s budget was cut because the number of students has declined.
“So we have less to work with to begin with,” he said.
Experts also suggested caps at schools like Francis Lewis High School, but Havemann said it is against DOE policy because, “We want to honor to the greatest extent possible students’ preferences.”
That, Goldstein said, cannot continue. “They keep saying yes, yes, yes to kids who want to come here, and no, no, no to things that could help Jamaica,” said Goldstein. “At some point, that has to change.”
Angela Montefinise covers education for The Post.