Parents and elected officials gathered at City Hall today to protest crowding in Manhattan that has led to long waiting lists for public school kindergartens.
Parents and elected officials gathered at City Hall today to protest crowding in Manhattan that has led to long waiting lists for public school kindergartens. (GothamSchools ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/28995913@N07/3508423223/##Flickr##)

A crowd of shell-shocked parents gathered outside City Hall this afternoon, angry that the Department of Education hasn’t found seats for the hundreds of rising kindergarten students who have been placed on waiting lists for next year at their local public schools.

The waiting lists, which include 273 names in just two Manhattan districts, mean that families in baby- and building-boom areas like the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, and Greenwich Village could find themselves unable to secure a spot at their neighborhood school’s kindergarten.

The lists attracted extra attention yesterday after news leaked that the city was considering closing or relocating prekindergarten classes at two Greenwich Village elementary schools, PS 3 and PS 41, in order to make room for kindergartners.

Parents at the rally said they felt confused and powerless. “As far as I can tell, I don’t have a Plan B — other than home school or moving to Jersey,” said Jay Douglas, whose 4-year-old son is number 42 on a waiting list for PS 187 in Washington Heights.

Elected officials joined the parents at City Hall today to criticize city officials for not planning ahead to meet the demand for spots in public schools. Scott Stringer, Manhattan’s borough president, said the DOE is “closing its eyes” to a widespread capacity problem, warning that taxpaying parents will pack up and move, taking their kids and tax dollars somewhere else if they can’t enroll in their local public school. Stringer has issued reports warning that new residential construction has outpaced the addition of new school seats, leaving the city ill-prepared to accommodate a rising number of children being raised in it.

Douglas said he has lived in Washington Heights, where the enrollment crunch is not as bad as it is farther downtown, for years but spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last summer to move within PS 187’s zone to ensure his son would be able to go there.
 
Douglas said his son is also on the wait list at two other schools in the area, PS 311 and PS 368. “I don’t think we’re close to the top of those lists either,” he said. “I really don’t know what to do.”

The DOE fired back today against the criticism, issuing a list of talking points arguing that the press is overstating the lack of seats. A main argument is that many of the schools with waiting lists also have families with children who have qualified to apply for gifted and talented programs, which can take in the overflow children. While four Upper East Side schools have a combined waiting list of 152, the memo points out that 179 children zoned for these schools have qualified for gifted programs next year.

Parents whose children tested eligible for gifted and talented programs can now apply to a slew of them for admission. In past years, not all families whose children qualify for the programs applied to them. And among those who applied and were accepted, not all said yes to the offer.

The plan to make room for kindergartners by potentially closing pre-kindergarten programs also caused alarm. Elected officials accused the city of pitting 4-year-olds against 5-year-olds.

Laleyna Gomez wants her 3-year-old daughter to attend preschool next year at PS 3, where her older daughter is in elementary school. But she said she got an e-mail from the school yesterday saying its pre-K classes could be eliminated. “How am I going to apply to another school now when the deadline is over?” she said.

Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and usually an ally of Bloomberg’s, said that all the major players need to come together and honestly assess the number of seats needed and then figure out how to create them. “It’s later than it should be, but it’s not September,” she said.