Economic Meltdown Hits Schools

The economy is leading many city parents to take a closer look at their local public schools. But parents aren’t the only ones trying to do more with less. Education funding is also facing major cutbacks. WNYC’s Beth Fertig visited the Upper West Side to explore how the economic meltdown might affect the schools.

PS 166 on West 89th Street is one of those schools that’s in high demand. About 45 parents of prospective kindergarteners showed up for a recent tour. The parents were especially interested in the school’s coveted Gifted and Talented program. They stood by the wall watching a first grade G&T class, as it’s known, as Alexandra Friedman and her classmates worked on short writing assignments.

ALEXANDRA: All of us have a different how-to book.

REPORTER: What’s yours?

ALEXANDRA: How to make lemonade. I always make it on the weekend.

Gifted and talented tests are going on this month for next fall’s kindergarten and first graders. Admissions are based on a complicated formula that considers cutoff scores, a family’s address, and the ranking of their favorite schools.

The program helped lure more families to PS 166 just as the neighborhood was going through a housing boom. About 15 years ago the school was under-capacity. It’s population was almost all low income black and Latino students – many of whom came from Harlem and the Bronx because local, more prosperous families weren’t interested. But now, the school is almost half white and it’s full. Elizabeth Elder and her friend Pamela Huson both live on the Upper West side and are exploring G&T and regular classes at PS 166.

ELDER: I think we would prefer the gifted and talented but we have to see how my daughter tests.

HUSON: Yeah. Same thing. Again, you have to wait and see how they test. I think more people are going to be entering the public schools this year because of the financial situation.

Huson is one of those very people. The single mother works in real estate and was considering private schools.

HUSON: if you talked to me in August I would have said it doesn’t matter if it’s private or public whichever one is the best. Now with the financial crisis because it directly affects my business - and my business has totally dropped off – now it’s different. Money comes into the picture whereas it didn’t before. So I don’t know what I’m going to do yet.

A school like PS 166 could get even more competitive because of the economy. The parent coordinator says her tours filled up faster than usual this year – and some parents were even waitlisted. But just as families are feeling the economic pinch, so are the city schools. The governor and the mayor have proposed budget cuts totaling up to one and a half billion dollars. Deborah Markevich, the parent coordinator at PS 166, says families are paying attention.

MARKEVICH: Parents are very concerned about the budget cuts, they’re very concerned. But, you know, so far we’re doing what we can. The principal is trying to not cut any really important programs. And, you know, we’ll see what happens next year.

PS 166 could probably ride out the economy easier than other schools because its parents do a lot of fundraising – and they’re well connected. But a lot of schools don’t have that kind of support. And others are just starting to engage their families.

WOMAN: I see something for $3, it’s checkers, do you like checkers?

At PS 84, on West 92nd Street, parents organized a rummage sale right before the holiday break. Students and parents bought each other’s used toys, clothes and household items to raise funds for the school.

Luis Flores is 42 and grew up in a housing complex for middle class families just around the corner. He attended a prep school, because the public schools had a terrible repuatation in the 1970s. His son now attends the Spanish dual-language program at PS 84. Though he’s been pleasantly surprised by the school, he says he might move his son to a private school if there are deep budget cuts.

FLORES: That’s kind of a wait and see. You just don’t know exactly how that’s going to affect school. Already we don’t’ have librarian. We’re working on filling that gap. But, you know, how much more can you cut?

Principal Robin Sundick says she does worry about her budget. If forced to, though, she expects to trim only around the edges.

SUNDICK: Most likely it will just be by making classes a little bit larger rather than eliminating programs and staff.

PS 84 has a big emphasis on arts. The school also started a dual language French program this year. Like PS 166, the school used to be under capacity, with many students coming from outside the district. But in her five years as principal, Sundick has worked hard to attract more neighborhood families. The demographics reflect that now. About two thirds of the pupils receive free or reduced lunch, compared to three quarters of the population in 2004. That means less federal Title 1 aid than she used to receive.

Sundick hopes her parents will keep raising extra cash. Though she acknowledges families could leave the city if they lose their jobs; or if they fear a rise in crime. But she’s has been around long enough to insist THIS fiscal climate is nothing like the ‘70s.

SUNDICK: Being a teacher who was laid off in 1975 by city cuts in those days, I was out of system two full years until I was recalled to service. I have to say I think it was far worse then – this is from my own perspective – than it is now because whole programs were lost and teachers were laid off. I really haven’t heard that they’re planning massive layoffs, that they’re really looking to cut programs.

And, she says, the schools have a few good years to buffer the impact. The city and state have invested in school libraries, raises for teachers, and construction.. meaning the public schools might be able to weather the coming storm. But they’ll need a lot of help from their families – if they can afford to keep giving. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.