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Overcrowding Squeezes Learning; Also the Great Toilet Paper Debate

by John Thomas and Vanessa Witenko of InsideSchools.org, Dec 22, 2004
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Six weeks after school opened, James Eterno still did not know who was enrolled in his social studies class at Jamaica High School in Queens. Guidance counselors were still adding and dropping students on his class register, shuffling them around in an attempt to keep all the school's classes at 34.

Eterno is just one of tens of thousands of teachers and students who struggle to do their jobs in the city's chronically overcrowded high schools. And, as Eterno's case shows, overcrowding doesn't just mean large classes. It means repeated disruptions and lost instructional time.

Each year, he says, the school overbooks his classes “like airlines overbook flights” -- counting on no shows to keep the numbers down. By the fifth day, pupils who have not yet appeared are dropped from class lists. “The kids aren’t all here on day one,” he said, adding that the "shell game" begins after day five, when no-shows begin showing up. The guidance office shuffles latecomers among classes as in a game of shells, trying to stay within the cap, set in the teachers contract, of 34 students each.

The nagging paucity of guidance counselors makes the situation even worse. Each counselor handles about 500 students. New enrollees and transfer students get priority for appointments, while stragglers and summer school students wait their turn. It is not unusual, Eterno said, for students to sit for six weeks in classes they passed in summer school. By the time they are placed in the next level, they are hopelessly behind.

“The system shortchanges everyone,” said Eterno, who is a chapter leader for the teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers. "Teachers want the budgeting priority to be lower class size and more guidance services."

Jamaica High School, operating at 116 percent capacity, is not even the most crowded school in Queens. Overall, high schools in Queens operated at 120 percent of capacity in the 2002-2003 school year, according to the Independent Budget Office. Queens Vocational High School operated at 183 percent of capacity, and Long Island City High School at 171 percent. In Brooklyn, Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School operated at 206 percent capacity overall.

To accommodate its 4,300-member student body in a building designed for 2,500, Long Island City High School has an extended schedule. First period begins at 7 a.m., and 13th period ends at 5:15 p.m. Teachers work overlapping shifts. Most seniors start taking instruction with the first bell and finish their day early, while lower-grade students attend later classes and go home late, sometimes after dark.

At Columbus High School in the Bronx, everyone gets shuffled. Peter Lamphere taught math for a week in music room, which had no desks, until he was moved to the auditorium stage. After another week, he was given a classroom.

“The administration has been working very hard to fix the problem,” Lamphere said. But the Department of Education “has given us 2,900 kids when they said in June that they would only be giving us 2,300. If they’d told us, we could have done construction over the summer, but someone was not doing the math.”

Last week, workers finished dismantling two computer labs and dividing them into classrooms, he said. As a result, students have less access to the computers.

Columbus, like Long Island City High School, has classes from dawn to dusk, with some students attending classes only in the morning, and others attending just in the afternoon. Three years ago, the city added five new small high schools to the building. One school has since been moved, but the four remaining high schools – with 900 students – bring the building’s total enrollment to 3,800. The building was designed to hold 2,400 students.

“The problem is that there isn’t enough space in the Bronx,” said Lamphere. “We are 6,000 seats short, and the last high school they built was John F. Kennedy High School in 1976.”

The city has an ambitious capital plan to build new schools and ease overcrowding. But the plan depends on getting more school aid from the state -- which does not seem likely any time soon.

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School Bathroom Supplies

Is there or is there not enough toilet paper, paper towels, and soap in the city's school bathrooms?

“The evidence is parents and teachers are requesting toilet paper,” said Eva Moskowitz, chair of the City Council's education committee said at a hearing earlier this year, as she waved copies of requests from teachers for toilet paper, paper towels, and soap.

Cathleen Grim, deputy chancellor for finance and administration disagreed: "All the schools have stock [toilet paper, soap, and paper towels], that's not the problem." Rather, she said, "Principals will often instruct the custodian not to stock the bathroom with toilet paper." To prevent unruly students from wasting supplies, the items are sometimes placed in classrooms under teacher supervision.

Since July 1, 2004 the department has received no more than 10 complaints about inadequate bathroom supplies through the city’s 311 hotline. A department survey conducted in mid-October concluded that 90 percent of the more than 1,000 schools investigated had adequate supplies, said Martin Oestreicher, chief executive for school support services.

But City Council Member Oliver Koppell of Riverdale in the Bronx, said that that means 10 percent do not have adequate supplies. "It's unacceptable that any school does not have toilet paper, paper towels, or soap," he said.

Parents agree school bathrooms are not what they should be. Melvin Meer, parent of a five-year-old at PS 41 in Queens said many toilet paper dispensers are too high for kindergarteners to reach, and when the rolls are in reach the paper can’t be pulled down.

Parent Natalie Nicosia, said her two children who attend PS 130 in Manhattan, often report no soap in their school bathrooms. “My children no longer consistently wash their hands,” said Nicosia. Other parents mentioned missing door locks, broken toilet paper dispensers, and bathroom fixtures from 1925 that cause consistent flooding.

Inside Schools asked readers what the condition was of bathrooms at their children’s schools. Although the poll is not scientific, it consistently shows poor hygiene in New York City public school bathrooms. Of the 355 people who answered the poll, 59 percent say bathroom supplies are "always" missing, and 27 percent say "sometimes." The majority of responses, 35 percent, say soap is most often missing, followed by paper towels with 23 percent.

Parents agree there are mischievous children wasting toilet paper, paper towels, and soap, but demanded another solution other than to remove the supplies. At IS 61, in Corona Queens, assistant principal Vincent Suraci, offers a solution to stop bad bathroom behavior. During school hours, a school aide sits outside the bathrooms with a sign-in sheet. "In order to monitor vandalism, they [the students] have to sign in each time they use the facilities," said Suraci.

One parent suggested more custodians are necessary. "Some schools contain 40 or more restrooms," said Katherine Flanders-Mukherji, a Brooklyn parent. "If there is only one full-time custodian in the building and his duties extend to everything from mopping spills to fixing broken heating elements, flooding pipes, falling plaster and, yes, stocking and cleaning the bathrooms, is it any wonder that the restrooms become unusable so quickly?"

This topic page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on Insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children.

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