Queens school districts are wagon-full of new school seats for the 2019-20 school year, though, even more than in the other boroughs, they could probably use a complete truckload.
“Since 2014, we’ve created more than 17,700 seats (including pre-K) in Queens.For the start of the 2019-2020 school year, we’ll be adding more than 1,600 additional seats in Queens,” said Kevin Ortiz, manager of communications and external affairs for the city’s School Construction Authority.
But there’s plenty of student body growth to keep up with.
“Many districts in Queens are still seeing increased enrollment,” said Leonie Haimson, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Class Size Matters, which does national advocacy work for smaller class sizes.
While the city overall has seen noticeable outmigration of existing residents, its total population has continued to increase due to a larger number of births than deaths. As of summer 2018, the City Planning Department said that the population has grown 2.2 percent on a year-over-year basis. Each of those births must be counted as at least a potential Universal Pre-Kindergarten student four years from now, or a potential kindergartener in five years. And they need their space.
“Generally speaking, Queens is tied with Staten Island for largest class sizes in elementary schools,” Haimson said.
The issue has long been a focus of area officials and civic leaders. “Lots of other districts seem to be getting new schools and additions,” the chairman of Community Board 9 in South Queens, Kenichi Wilson, said when discussing his priorities upon taking his post last April. “We hear all the time from parents who say lots of classrooms are overcrowded. I just don’t feel we have the solution to overcrowding yet in our districts.” Those are SDs 27 and 28.
Ortiz provided the breakdown of this year’s additional school seats for Queens, the bulk of which are at the elementary level. In Forest Hills, 484 new seats are available in an addition to PS 303, The Academy for Excellence through the Arts, and 590 new seats are part of an extension to PS 144, the Col. Jeromus Remsen School.
In Richmond Hill, room for 124 students is included in an addition to PS 66, the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.
And Queens is getting one entirely brand-new school in Jackson Heights that will education 476 children. PS 398 will open on the western end of the neighborhood abutting the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, on the site of the former White Castle headquarters at 34th Avenue and 69th Street.
Both PS 303 and PS 144 are in District 28, which includes Forest Hills, Rego Park, Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, Briarwood and part of South Ozone Park. The district’s elementary schools have been overcrowded for at least a decade; that’s when one of its schools, PS 101, began the 2010-11 school year with one teacher and 31 kindergarten students in a single classroom.
Both PS 303 and PS 144 have added their new wings by building into their previously capacious, and still-ample, playgrounds. With the new space, traditionally K-3 PS 303 will begin a transition to include students in grades 4 and 5. However, under a new policy, admission priority is being reserved for the affluent surrounding community of students who are zoned for the overcrowded PS 196, a school with some of the highest test scores in the city.
An extension at PS 144 was originally approved in 2015, partly in response to years of housing some classrooms in trailers. The four-story addition was designed to include 24 classrooms, a cafeteria and both office and medical-office space. The project was designed to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act in both the new addition and throughout the pre-existing school building — something that most of the city’s old school buildings can’t say about their facilities.
This fall’s new 124 seats in District 27’s PS 66 in Richmond Hill will be in a new wing that includes six new classrooms as well as a new cafeteria, an exercise room and an office suite for school administrators.
In District 30’s Jackson Heights, PS 398’s 476 kindergarten through fifth-grade seats are spread over five stories. The school has planned a grand opening for its families on Tuesday, Sept. 3, including a family breakfast at 9 a.m., remarks by new Principal Erica Ure–a Thus and District 30 Superintendent Dr. Phillip A. Composto at 9:30, and a school tour from 10:30 to 11.
Based on the growing population and the school system’s starting point of overcrowding, it stands to reason that the borough still needs more seats.
“The biggest need in Queens is for elementary and high school seats but there are a couple of projects for middle schools in the pipeline as well,” Ortiz said. The middle school projects are planned for Districts 24 and 30, he said.
This summer, the Chronicle visited a new UPK for 45 children in District 27. In addition to Richmond Hill, the district includes some or all of the communities of Woodhaven, Ozone Park, South Ozone Park, Howard Beach and the Rockaways. In all, four new DOE pre-K and 3-K centers are being added in the district this fall to make room for 500 early childhood students.
Looking ahead, 5,400 new high school seats are planned to become available for Queens by 2023, Ortiz said.
A brand-new high school planned for Northern Boulevard is now going through the site selection process, he said. The Chronicle reported earlier this summer that a required environmental impact statement revealed that the site under consideration is the former Sports Authority property at Northern Boulevard and Broadway, where Jackson Heights, Sunnyside and Woodside meet. The planned six-story building would educate more than 3,000 students.
Also in the pipeline for high schoolers, Ortiz said, are 969 additional seats planned to open at the Academy for American Studies in Long Island City — nearly doubling that school’s capacity — as well as a 555-seat annex at Francis Lewis High School in Flushing, with planned occupancy in 2021.
Also on the agenda is an annex to Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside that would provide an additional 797 seats by 2022.