Although Community Board 11 is working on a resolution to prod the city into building more high schools in the area, educators say there is no easy fix to the overcrowding problem.
The initial resolution was tabled at last week’s monthly C.B. 11 meeting because member Rob Caloras, who is also president of Community Education Council 26, said the wording needed to be changed. “You have to be careful what you ask for,” he said. “If you ask for a cap in the number of students, the city could take away priority for zoned students.”
Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, Benjamin Cardozo in Bayside and Bayside High School are all considered severely overcrowded. Lewis has the highest enrollment in the city at about 4,537 students. Cardozo has 4,051 students and Bayside around 3,600. “That is major over- capacity,” Caloras said.
The city has added transportable classrooms where there was room and continued its split sessions, but the halls remain crowded and school grounds teem with students either waiting for their session to begin or rehearsing with a school group.
On a recent afternoon, Lewis JROTC students were drilling in the front schoolyard near cheerleaders, who were practicing their routines. Caloras said Principal Musa Ali Shama, who has been there a year, is making the school function very well. “I walked the halls with him. He knows the students and has a sense of humor,” he said.
One problem brought to Caloras’ attention, however, is the effect of split session schedules. Ninth graders have the early session, beginning at 7:15 a.m. Then when they enter 10th grade, they go to a 10 a.m. start time. “Now that they can come in later, they sometimes miss first period and leave before the last period,” he said. “Their grades drop.”
At Lewis, the school was forced to add a 13th period this fall. Classes run from 7:15 a.m. to 6:47 p.m. in a building designed for 2,800 students.
In addition, such institutions are becoming “commuter schools,” where students come to learn and then immediately leave. There is no time or space for many clubs and after-school activities.
The popularity of the three schools is due to their excellent academic records and graduation rates, but it’s that perception that is keeping them overcrowded, Caloras believes: “You could build several new schools but it will not relieve the situation at these three schools.”
He indicated there is no guarantee that new schools would have any experienced teachers or be able to meet the needs of the community.
Under the Bloomberg administration, all students must apply to get into a high school, even if they want to go to the one in their neighborhood. But even if they are turned down by the school they prefer, which could be anywhere in the city, students can appeal and usually get in, Caloras said.
In the past, neighborhood youngsters were guaranteed a seat in their local school. Today, they are only given a “priority, which is not the same thing as a guarantee,” he said.
Some schools are not highly rated academically and many zoned students decide to go elsewhere. “For example, Van Buren, in Queens Village, and Jamaica High schools are underutilized,” Caloras said. “The only way you are going to get more students to go is to make the bad schools better. But even if that is done, it will take years to attain and to change the perception.”
Caloras would like the city to cap the number of students that can go to a particular school and to return to zoned schools. “I want every community to have a full-service high school that is top quality,” he said. “Why isn’t it like that way yet?”
He acknowledges Queens is short seats for high schools — about 33,000 — and there is a need for new buildings, but that more needs to be done. “Again, you have to change people’s perceptions,” he added. “What the city’s been doing is not enough.”
Michael Athy, principal at Bayside High School, believes the school system is searching for a way to balance the positive effects of providing students and parents with choices of schools while keeping the most popular high schools from falling victim to the many known problems associated with overcrowding.
“It’s a difficult balance to strike, especially with a limited capital budget,” Athy said.
Earlier this year, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School issued a report on the city’s public high schools, saying Chancellor Joel Klein’s reforms created new opportunities, but also caused collateral damage.
Since every student going to high school has to fill out an application for acceptance into one of the city’s 400 high schools, the report notes the school-choice system depends on well-informed guidance counselors. “Many students lack adequate support in choosing and ranking their schools and guidance counselors are underequipped to support them,” the report says.