Last summer, Darla Childs, a Greenpoint resident of 16 years, was ready to leave the neighborhood. After months of trying to get her son into a Pre-K program at neighborhood public schools, she was at her wit’s end.
“He’s supposed to go to school in a month and we’re not enrolled anywhere,” she said in an interview with Greenpointers. Childs’ son, who has severe food allergies, had only been offered a seat in East Williamsburg, a 45-minute walk from her home.
“I need him to be at a school that’s within walking distance so that I can meet an ambulance if there’s an emergency,” she explained.
Childs’ difficulty in enrolling her son in a nearby public school reflects a growing problem in Greenpoint. Despite statistics from the Department of Education (DOE) that depict a large swath of northern Brooklyn as under capacity, Greenpoint’s Pre-K and elementary schools are filled to the brim, parents and elected officials say.
Local parents argue that overcrowding affects not just children applying for pre-school, but currently enrolled students. And the ongoing development of luxury condo buildings in the neighborhood combined with the delayed construction of a K-8 school only exacerbate existing concerns.
“The DOE could see this coming years ago,” Jordan Melkin, a long-time Greenpoint resident, father of two sons who attend public school and real estate agent, said in an interview.
Full Waitlists and Cramped Spaces
“There’s definitely a problem,” stated Vandana Arcot, a doctor who moved to Greenpoint four years ago, in an interview. Arcot’s son commutes 40 minutes each day to the Lower East Side to attend Pre-K.
Melkin, whose two sons attend P.S. 34, catches wind of similar complaints. “We’ve heard a lot of horror stories come at the end of the spring,” he explained.
He’s also privy to another consequence of school overcrowding: lack of space. Officially overcapacity this past academic year, P.S. 34 does not have an auditorium, gym or library. “We have no room for anything, except for classrooms,” he said.
Even the classrooms aren’t sufficient. “Some of our classrooms are tiny,” explained Jane Lea, a local architect and former president of the Parents Teachers Association at P.S. 34, in an interview. The city’s cap on elementary school class size is 32 students. “The DOE metrics don’t seem to take in account the physical space of the school,” she criticized.
And within walking distance is P.S. 132, whose elementary school also is officially overcapacity. The Greenpoint elementary school houses the district’s only gifted and talented program, which packs approximately 32 students in a class from first through fifth grade.
“That’s a lot of kids,” said Kim Gabriel, a Greenpoint resident whose son is in the third-grade gifted and talented class. “Think about how long it takes for 28 or 32 first and second graders to unpack their bags, and get ready for lunch and then pack up their bags. Teaching time gets shrunk.”
Crowding by the Numbers
The city’s statistics, though, paint a rosier picture than parents allege. Only 85 % of the elementary school seats in District 14, which includes Greenpoint, were occupied in the past academic year, detailed the city in its yearly report on school capacity.
“The average K-5 class size in District 14 for the 2018-19 school year was below the citywide average,” explained a spokesperson for the DOE in an email.
However, North Brooklyn’s educational district not only encompasses the neighborhood of Greenpoint. The district also serves Williamsburg and parts of Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant.
“District 14 is big,” Lea argues. “There is definitely a micro-district that’s suffering.”
That “micro-district,” by some accounts, is attracting even more families. The population of children under five-years-old within the 11222 ZIP code has increased since 2011, according to an analysis of the American Community Survey, a report released every year by the U.S. Census Bureau.
And if the numbers are not reminders of Greenpoint’s increased popularity, the newly constructed waterfront apartments are. In addition to other neighborhood developments, a collection of 30 and 40-story towers are rising along Greenpoint’s northwestern tip, part of the wide-ranging apartment complex, Greenpoint Landing.
A School and a Superfund Site
With parents clamoring for more school seats underneath the growing shadows of luxury condos, elected officials’ hands are tied. “I do know that we have had an influx of new residents, so there is clearly a need to build another school,” commented Assemblyman Joseph Lentol in an email. “There is not enough space. There is no easy solution.”
City officials thought they had found that solution in 2013 when Council Member Stephen Levin approved a new school within the 22-acre Greenpoint Landing development. However, the school’s planned site was directly across from a plume of toxic waste underneath the shuttered NuHart Plastics building.
“Let’s find a safer, smarter site for our children,” commented Mike Schade, a member of a neighborhood advocacy group, to WNYC at a public meeting in 2018.
In the meantime, Council Member Levin has been scrambling to find an answer to residents’ concerns. He, Lentol and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation have been in talks with a developer to relocate the planned school to an undisclosed site.
State Senator Julia Salazar said the site would potentially be “around India Street,” in an interview with Greenpointers. Council Member Levin did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the new school’s location.
For Darla Childs, a planned-school that is years down the pipeline won’t help her family: “They’re looking for a new site, so they can build a high-rise school, but you need to find something right now.”
Perhaps the best short-term option for families like Childs’ is to consider district schools with open seats. “Overcrowding is an issue. It’s real, but there are in-district schools—if you’re willing to travel a little further than you wanted to—that can give you a seat,” suggested Yuli Hsu, vice-president of the district’s Community Educational Council, in an interview.
Senator Salazar echoed Hsu’s emphasis on looking beyond neighborhood schools: “Not everyone will be able to go to school where they like.”
Childs, whose son requires particular care because of his acute food allergies, thinks those recommendations ring hollow. “I’m calling bullshit on that.” she exclaimed in a follow-up interview. “I truly need him to be in a school that, if there is an emergency, I can meet an ambulance by foot.”
Luckily, a nearby private school participating in the city’s Pre-K program materialized for Childs and her family this summer. With only a handful of seats and a nonexistent web presence, the ‘Greenpoint School’ flew under her and the Department of Enrollment’s radar.
Although she is happy with her son’s experience after enrolling him in the school’s Pre-K program in mid-September, that doesn’t erase a summer’s worth of contacting elected officials, pestering city bureaucrats and exploring options like moving out of the neighborhood.
“This entire process could not have been more stressful,” Childs reflected. “This should be a huge wake-up call for everybody that’s thinking that they’re going to put their kids in public school in Greenpoint.”