Imagine there are two high schools in the same borough. One school can’t enroll enough kids to stay open, and the other is filled to 250% of capacity. What would you do? It might seem logical to even out the population of both schools, but that is not how New York City operates.
I’m in one of the most overcrowded schools in the city, Francis Lewis High School. Our building is designed for 1,800 kids, and last year we were up to 4,450. This year we hit 4,700, and the sky’s the limit. Where the extra kids will go I have no idea. I teach in a trailer out back, and you wouldn’t use it to house your dog if you had a choice.
In the trailers, you never can tell if there will be heat on cold days or AC on hot ones (and don’t buy a used car from anyone who tells you tin keeps you cool). The bathrooms are an abomination. Though school trailers are all the rage in New York City, you never see them on the news. If I didn’t visit one every working day of my life, I probably wouldn’t believe they existed.
On the other hand, James Eterno, chapter leader at Jamaica High School, has a completely different problem. Not enough kids are enrolling in his school. Could we help one another? That way, if, God forbid, there were ever a fire or something, perhaps more of us could make it out alive. How did things get to this point?
It’s complicated. Longtime teachers know that a lot of incidents routinely go unreported. The Bloomberg administration, early on, declared all incidents would be reported, and some administrators took those words to heart — as did those at Jamaica. The consequences are highly unlikely to encourage other administrators to do the same.
The city labeled Jamaica a “priority” school, and then an “impact” school. Ultimately, the state labeled the school “persistently dangerous.” Under NCLB, this triggered a letter home to all Jamaica parents, offering them an opportunity to transfer their kids to another school. Understandably, the school population dropped precipitously. Was Jamaica persistently dangerous, or was it just reporting more incidents than its neighbors?
Administration then began to move in the opposite direction. This resulted in the disastrous policy (by no means unique to Jamaica) of not allowing staff to call 911 without administrative approval. This was widely covered in the media, and likely resulted in even lower enrollment at Jamaica.
The DoE’s position was that Jamaica needed surveillance cameras, police, and metal detectors to improve. Eterno felt it would’ve benefited more from additional counselors, teachers, and social workers. But that was not to be the case. In fact, in 2008 Jamaica had over a dozen teachers, excessed due to declining enrollment, sitting in the school day after day, sometimes working as subs.
Why couldn’t these teachers have been used to decrease class sizes, and consequently give more attention to kids at Jamaica? The answer may be that the DoE had other plans for the space created by the exodus of local kids.
In 2008, Queens Collegiate, a school co-sponsored by the College Board, was placed in what used to be the social studies wing of Jamaica High. Jamaica’s social studies department was banished to an office in which they shared a single electrical outlet. Meanwhile, according to Eterno, Queens Collegiate rooms got paint, computers, smartboards, and everything else private-public ventures are entitled to in Mayor Bloomberg’s New York.
Additional schools create additional levels of administration and eat up classroom space, worsening overcrowding. Eterno asks, “Wouldn’t it be a better idea to fix a place like Jamaica?” At overcrowded Francis Lewis High School, I wonder the same thing. Why couldn’t the free space in Jamaica be used to help us, rather than a privately-sponsored school? Why doesn’t the city invest in technology, magnet programs, and better conditions to draw kids to Jamaica?
In fact, why don’t they offer prospective Jamaica students lower class sizes (which parents declared their number one priority on a DoE-sponsored survey)? Hasn’t Mayor Bloomberg accepted hundreds of millions of CFE lawsuit funds for that very purpose? Isn’t fixing schools for our kids, whether or not they win charter lotteries, whether or not they’re accepted into elite schools, worth a try?
Eterno says of the DoE, “If they perceive you as troubled, they don’t throw you a lifeline. They seem to say, ‘Good, you’re drowning. We hope you go under.'” But is that attitude unique to Jamaica? It doesn’t appear so. Our school is just a variation on a theme. They perceive us as successful, and seem to want to overcrowd us until we reach a breaking point — which is nothing short of inevitable.
It’s sort of a Catch 22 — struggle and you’re in danger of closing, but excel and you’re packed to the rafters and beyond. Why not give Lewis kids a real incentive to attend Jamaica, or any nearby school for that matter? Any time it felt like it, this administration could wake up and help me and James Eterno.
More importantly, it could help the thousands of kids we serve.