At a Crowded Brooklyn Heights School, a Stopgap Solution

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A rezoning buys time at PS 8, but not much of it, with new housing coming on line


(Hillary Flynn / The Brooklyn Ink)

Parents of students at the highly coveted PS 8 elementary school in Brooklyn Heights should be in bliss. Their district was rezoned earlier this year, so students who live in Dumbo will start at a different elementary school next fall, relieving the serious overcrowding that has plagued PS 8 for years.

But instead of celebrating, parents are anxious. The rezoning solved the overcrowding at PS 8 for the short-term, but the boom of residential development in the neighborhood makes parents and education groups in the area believe it’s just a temporary solution. “Even with the rezone, we’re at capacity,” said a parent of a child at PS 8, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

Approximately 3,750 new housing units have been approved for development in the PS 8 school zone through 2017, according to Downtown Brooklyn School Solutions, a grassroots organization that tracks overcrowding. That number does not include units from the Pier 6 and buildings associated with the Brooklyn Bridge Library developments, which are projected to add another 430 housing units.

Parents at PS 8 are concerned that class sizes will soon be pushing the 25-student class size limit for kindergarten classes or the 32-student class size limit for first-through-fifth grade classes in just a couple of years. This past school year, there was even a waitlist to get into the kindergarten,  a list that climbed to about 50.

“Ps 8 is still overcrowded. Rezoning did not eliminate the overcrowding; it just eliminated the wait list for kindergarten,” said Christopher Young, a member of Downtown Brooklyn School Solutions. The group deals with school issues in the District 13 school district, which includes PS 8.

Vascilla Caldeira, a member of District 13’s Community Education Council, pointed out that PS 8 still does not have a proper gym or auditorium area large enough to accommodate its rather large number of students. “They also need science labs,” she said. “Schools need these things for students to survive and get a well-balanced education. It’s very tight in that building”

Bittersweet Success

Temporary solutions have been the pattern for a while. From the outside, PS 8 looks like the idyllic city public elementary school. It has a quaint brick exterior and an inviting deep-green front door to welcome students in. It’s surrounded by a low, black iron fence, and the front lawn is filled with trees and grass. An American flag waves in the wind over the entrance. Less than 15 years ago, PS 8 was a school where parents avoided sending their children. Enrollment fell to just 245 students in 2003, according to PS 8’s website.

But parents say current principal Seth Phillips, who started in May 2003, has changed the school for the better. Phillips’ initial goal was “to build a place where parents would want to send their children,” according to PS 8’s website. He quickly brought positive attention to PS 8. Attendance soared by almost 75%—to 428 students—from 2004 to 2006. Parents’ questions during open houses began to change from, “Is this school right for my kids” to “How can I be sure my kids get in here?”

But a flood of students into the school quickly became a problem: The building did not have enough classrooms to accommodate all of them. Pre-kindergarten classes were taught in trailers in the schoolyard by 2008. The cafeteria doubled as a gym. Parents became outraged, demanding that something be done. The solution was “the Annex”—a new wing to the PS 8 building that would add seven new classrooms, a multipurpose room that served as a gym, two small resource rooms, and a guidance room, according to a November 2014 presentation by the PTA.

But when the Annex opened in the spring of 2011, it immediately filled to capacity. Parents said that when the new wing opened, music, dance, and art classes had their own rooms. That amenity quickly vanished as the rooms were converted into classrooms in order to house the growing number of students. Instead of having a home base, art teachers would travel from classroom to classroom to teach their classes. “The music teacher would have to push the instruments around on a cart and distribute them. It impacts the amount of musical instruction you can do,” a parent of a student at PS 8 said. Parents at the school nicknamed it “Art on a Cart.”

The school reached 142% overcapacity by the 2013-14 school year, according to the PTA’s Nov. 2014 presentation. As of Nov. 18, 2014, there were 703 students in 28 classrooms.

The New York City Department of Education tackled the issue from several angles. The DOE eliminated pre-kindergarten classes for the 2014-15 school year, in order to create two additional K-5 classrooms, according to the PTA’s Feb. 2015 presentation. The DOE also limited the number of kindergarten classes to five from six. But in the 2015-16 school year, there was a waitlist to get into PS 8’s kindergarten.
This frustrated parents paying hefty home or rent prices to live in Brooklyn Heights, hoping to send their children to a successful elementary school. The average cost to purchase an apartment in Brooklyn Heights is $2.7 million as of Feb. 2016, according to the real estate website Trulia. The average rent was $8,600 as of July 2016.

Not in the Zone

Rezoning the district was the Department of Education’s solution to the wait list. The government body worked with the Community Education Council to have an open dialogue with local parents about the plan and to try to get them on board. (Each school district has such a council, composed of 12 members. Nine of the members are parents elected to the posts by PTAs of schools in the district, and two are members appointed by the borough president, according to the DOE’s website).

In Brooklyn Heights, communicating with the council was key to getting the rezoning plan off the ground.  One of the council’s main powers is its ability to approve or reject rezoning initiatives. And from the start, Caldeira said she knew rezoning PS 8 would be a challenge to sell to parents. PS 8’s District 13 includes PS 307—the elementary school where many of the Dumbo students would be moved to—as well as other schools. One of the main complications surrounding the rezoning was that PS 8 has a better reputation than PS 307. PS 8 has an A rating from, while PS 307 has a D.

The other complication is the socioeconomic differences between the two schools. PS 307’s zone is incredibly small by zone standards, encompassing an affordable housing area and the students who live there. The students are mostly members of minority groups, compared to PS 8’s students, who are mostly white. The Dumbo students who were rezoned were also, on average, from wealthier families.

Many Dumbo parents were skeptical about the idea of their children switching to PS 307, and, from the other side, many PS 307 families did not want Dumbo students becoming part of their community and gentrifying their area. “With PS 8 and 307, we knew we needed to have more community engagement, not just from parents but from community organizations,” Caldeira said.

Caldeira said the council hosted numerous forums leading up to the rezoning’s approval. Representatives from the Department of Education came to many of these and answered the questions that parents threw at them, which Caldeira said is rare. “The rezoning process was a very, very trying one and a very, very tense one because of the two district communities,” Caldeira said. “They had to come together even though 307 felt as if it was being taken over, and did not get the opportunity to be a part of the discussion; it’s why we began hosting so many forums after the rezoning was pitched.”

Ultimately, the rezoning was green-lighted for the 2016-17 school year.

“While this is a momentous step, the work is far from over,” a spokeswoman for the DOE said in an emailed statement. “We’ll continue to work closely with all parents to implement this plan and provide support during the transition.”

Overcrowding All Over

Overcrowding is a New York City-wide problem with public schools. Elizabeth Rose, acting deputy chancellor in the division of operations at the DOE, pointed out in her testimony before the NYC Council Committee on Education on March 3, 2015 that approximately 575—or 44%—of public schools in New York were overcrowded.

Solving the problem is not easy, since the best solutions available are to rezone or build more schools. Rose pointed out in her testimony that of the 217 schools the DOE rezoned since the 2010-11 school year, close to 60% experienced a decrease in overcrowding and 70% underwent a decrease three years after the rezoning.

She also mentioned the DOE had opened 11 new sites creating more than 5,000 new seats for students across New York. But such construction takes time. PTA parents at PS 8 fear that the overcrowding will likely return lon before any new school could be completed.

The School Construction Authority in charge of finding locations to build and then oversee the construction of new schools said during a July borough meeting that three projects—totaling 1,620 seats in District 13—that were planned to be build in the next couple years did not have locations yet. The challenge, the Authority said in a borough meeting, “is to find spots for those seats.”

The Downtown Brooklyn School Working Group developed by New York City Councilman Stephen Levin projected 985 new housing units will be added in Brooklyn Heights from 2015-19, creating 14,121 total units—a 14% increase from the 12,347 units in Brooklyn Heights at the time of the 2010 census. That number only includes known projects in development.

“Clearly just eliminating the wait list will not eliminate the overcrowding, you’ve got more families moving in and more children from current families,” Young said.

Even without these new units, between 2010-13 there was a 35.4% increase in the number of children under the age of five in the current PS 8 zone—rising from 1,670 in 2,010 to 2,261—in 2013, according to census and ACS data.

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