Here's a Riddle: How Many Students Can Fit into a NYC School Building?

Wednesday, May 07, 2014 - 04:00 PM

Columbus High School Campus (Beth Fertig)

An obscure technical report issued every year by the Department of Education has long aggravated those concerned with overcrowding in New York City public schools. It is this report, and its underlying formula, that are now under review by a panel appointed by Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña largely because of critics' concerns that the formula is both deeply flawed and has been misused to handle an overcrowding crisis in the schools.

At issue is how much actually will change because of the task force, comprised of parent leaders, community activists and about a dozen staff members from the Department of Education and the School Construction Authority. Fariña said there may not be fundamental reforms to the Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report, known as the blue book, but she hoped there would be better understanding of the process.

"There’s always room for improvement and having been a principal I know when people walk the building there’s all kinds of ways of looking at space," Fariña said in a recent interview. "Listening to everybody is our first goal and the second goal is to come up with common vocabulary that when we actually walk into schools, when we say this space is designated for X, that everybody understands that it would be the same no matter school you go into."

Part of the listening campaign will mean getting an earful from critics, including Sarah Morgridge, a member of the task force and previously a staff member working on school capacity issues for former City Council member Robert Jackson.

"The formula has absolutely nothing to do with the way the building was designed," said Morgridge.

She questioned how certain schools in District 6, where she raised her own children, were designed with the same floor plans but ended up with wildly different school capacity numbers. And she contended that the department converted specialty rooms — those used for art, music, special education services and counseling — to classrooms in many buildings in order to address enrollment needs, artificially inflating a school building's capacity on paper.

Trailers, meant to be temporary spaces, also were added to school's capacity in the blue book, said Morgridge.

"The capacity numbers have always been manipulated in order to control the utilization numbers," she said.

Morgridge's point has been made before. As far back as 2001, a state Supreme Court judge outlined the same issue of inflated capacity in the ruling of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity versus The State of New York.

Other task force members said they would like to see the entire philosophy of evaluating school capacity shift, from one that maximizes efficiency in a school building to one that focuses on the best way to meet students' educational needs.   

Eric Greenleaf, a task force member and a parent in Manhattan's District 2, said that he would like to see the group identify concrete areas in which the blue book needs reform.

"I think the place to start is to say 'here are 10 things that are going on in the blue book that shouldn’t be going on,'" he said, "and these can be changed immediately."

Fariña warned that changes to the blue book would not come overnight. Except two: the department would reformat the lengthy, technical document  to make it easier to read and it would release the next blue book, covering school capacity in the 2013-2014 school year, earlier, possibly before September.


Comments [7]

Mr.M from Brooklyn

My high school students made a short documentary about how crowded our school building is. Take a look and see how insane the hallways are for yourselves:

May. 12 2014 11:36 AM
Karen from D30

Echoing what Sara said - lunchroom and gym capacity have to be considered when considering the total capacity of the school. If you have students eating lunch before 11:00 am, the school is overcrowded. If students cannot receive adequate, state-mandated physical education time, the school is overcrowded.

May. 09 2014 01:01 PM
Yudy from Washington Heights

This is the same Capacity formula that says we have run to fit a CTE HIGH school in the IS52 building and takes pppppEmpty HS building (Mother Cabrini) and gives it to a charter school that was requested in a totally different district. Depleting resources from a middle school that, to date, has an 86% high achievement level. Lets help our schools succeed by giving them the space necessary to teach our children for the future!

May. 09 2014 10:51 AM
John Albin from Washington Heights

I'm a parent in district 6. In my child's school they've had to cancel the pre-K program to deal with increases in the kindergarten program because they have nowhere to put all the kids. Classes in all grades are ridiculously crowded -- there's literally no open space in some rooms. Yet DOE says the school is under capacity. Other schools have all sorts of crowding issues in the face of population growth, but there's in essence no plan to deal with this growth, and a blue book that puts a fig leaf on all of it.

We need an honest accounting of space, based on a reasonable premise of what a school actually needs to provide an adequate education. It's not acceptable to say that a school isn't overcrowded until it converts the library, cafeteria, gym, art room, music room, teachers lounge, and broom closets into classrooms and fills all of those rooms up to the collective bargaining maximums for class sizes. Yes, that accounting means $billions in school construction and expansion are required, but we have to face that.

May. 09 2014 09:37 AM
Mary Illes

thank you for this article. My daughter attends Manhattan East Middle School, and they are facing an encroachment from Harlem Prep as that school wants to grow to 8th grade, since their NEW BUILDING is not yet finished being constructed. As ME parents we don't want Harlem Prep to use our classrooms. We are respectfully asking Harlem Prep to wait one more year until their building is completed before expanding to 8th grade. It would certainly create chaos and stress for both school's students, admin and all. Two fundamentally different schools each good in their own right need their own space. This madness has to stop. Co-locations are not a good idea.

May. 09 2014 09:17 AM
Sara from Washington Heights

In District 6 we have several over-crowded, co-located schools. Following the unfortunate closure of Mother Cabrini High School in Washington Heights it was swiftly & quietly determined that a new Success Academy Charter School would be granted the use of this space. Meanwhile, we need a high school (90 girls just lost theirs, and many more would benefit), we need a middle school and the elementary schools are squeezed out of gym time and art rooms, and a proper lunch time. This was done without any notice to Community Education Councils (CEC) or opportunity for public comment when the impact and the cost to the community is so great! Chancellor Fariña "warned that changes to the blue book would not come overnight" - that is understandable. What is not clear or fair is why things move so briskly when Success Academy asks for space.

May. 09 2014 08:46 AM
Mary Conway-Spiegel

Fariña said there may not be fundamental reforms to Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report, known as the blue book, but she hoped there would be better understanding of the process.

Anyone who's been through anything having to do with co-location of any kind should read between the lines. This is not good news.

May. 08 2014 11:38 AM

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