This article is a companion piece to the Radio Free Bay Ridge podcast episode “A School of Our Own.”
The threat of school colocation creeps ever closer to Bay Ridge. NYC schools are overcrowded, we live in one of the most overcrowded districts in the city (District 20) and some believe one way to “fix” this problem is to shove two, three, five or more schools into the same building. This is “colocation”—but first, let’s talk about overcrowding.
Overcrowding in a Nutshell
Education District 20, as of the 2013–2014 school year, was 7,764 seats overcrowded. Plans (i.e. money for new schools) to alleviate this overcrowding get that number down to 3,329 by 2024, making it still one of the most overcrowded districts in the city.
Here’s just a short list of the troubles caused by overcrowding: Teachers have classes that are twice as big as they can handle; resources like desks and sports equipment wear out faster; more kids means more car drop-offs means more traffic congestion and road wear; counselors and nurses must spend less time with each student; after-school programs have a larger constituency with a smaller number of teacher volunteers; federal testing prep combined with larger class sizes means less time for individual student projects and teacher attention; field trips and other schoolwide activities become logistically more complicated and expensive; and so on.
You may have yet to notice any of these increased burdens; if so, thank a teacher. From all the ones I’ve spoken to, I learned it’s become easier to hide from parents a massive uptick in unpaid overtime and out-of-pocket expenses that is often requested—or, silently, implicitly required—by the school administration. In turn, those administrators who just want to support their teaching staffs may not have the budget to do so, and as overcrowding becomes worse, those 20 boxes of pencils, purchased by a lower-middle class teacher renting a flat ten subway stops from school, soon becomes 40, and now the PTA wonders where the pizza money went while the quality of their child’s education quietly trends inexorably downward.
The burden of school overcrowding, then, necessitates action.
Colocation has been happening for a while. Senior housing can be colocated with other senior-living communities; low-income housing is regularly worked into contracts for new, high-rent apartments; Taco Bell pairs up with Pizza Hut to satisfy a niche audience I don’t fully understand. The decision to colocate saves them money and, often, creates convenience.
Rather than mirror these benefits, however, colocating a school only exacerbates many of the problems listed above. Two or three or four more schools in a single building won’t mean fewer cars come to drop off their children in the morning. Teachers won’t gain space by sharing a classroom with three other teachers every day. Nurses won’t suddenly have more beds when their office gets cut in half to build more office space.
It should also be remembered that the vast majority of NYC public schools weren’t built with colocation in mind. Folks sat down and designed a building for one purpose: a functional school. What happens, then, when you take an already overcrowded school and propose to give more of its seats to a charter? Disruption, a dire lack of services, resentment…it’s hard to see it as anything short of a tax increase, asking us to pay the accommodation of a bloated, unstable private entity at the expense of students and public assets.
Schools built specifically for colocation not only can exist; they should exist. If states are the laboratories of democracy, then NYC schools are the laboratories of education, and lessons learned from cohabited educational spaces, built with purpose and function in mind, would yield exciting results with less (if any) negative impact on the students and teachers themselves.
But that’s not what’s happening. As of right now, when the DoE comes knocking, it’s to cram, not to expand; to take, not to build.
Councilmember Justin Brannan recently said two things about colocation on our podcast. First, that it was possible for citizens to “out-organize” the DoE. If we show up, and we’re both mad and informed, then it’s a fight we can win.
Second, that, no matter what the result, school seats have got to go somewhere. If there isn’t colocation at Fort Hamilton High School, it’ll hop across the highway to Dyker Heights. If the new pre-K on 93rd is going to stay united, it’s going to divide a classroom up in Sunset Park. Between the need for seats and the legal requirements on the city to place charters, colocation is one of the quickest and quietest things the DoE can do to “solve” both problems. It’s a quick fix for an infinitely complex problem.
Be Ready, is All I’m Saying
There will not be a kind, spunky DoE worker who will come to your home and lay out your options. They will not explain the detriments. They will not ask for your permission. These things are not their job. There will, however, be attempts to colocate schools in this neighborhood. It will happen sooner than you think. It will happen at the school your child attends, and the colocation will be approved when met without opposition.
There are currently no underutilized schools in Bay Ridge. This means each building is pushed to (and beyond) its maximum potential. But that doesn’t mean that a new school—perhaps the one Brannan wants to build—will not be tapped to colocate. Perhaps if the new school siphons off students, then old buildings will be subject to colocation, as well. The only thing we can do is be hyperaware of what’s going on at our schools, keep an eye out for talk of colocation and prepare to organize swiftly and with a critical mass of people to tell the DoE that quick fixes that put the education of our future citizens in jeopardy will not be tolerated here.
Erik Shell is senior correspondent for Radio Free Bay Ridge, as well as a Bay Ridge resident, nonprofit professional and passionate advocate for community-lead educational development.