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Tight Budgets, Escalating Enrollments Collide

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Lunch at John Bowne High School in New York City is virtually an all-day affair.

With 3,100 students--roughly 700 more than capacity--the school serves the midday meal in shifts that start at 10:20 A.M. and continue past 2 P.M.

"Kids come in for the first shift and don't know whether it is breakfast, lunch, or brunch," Principal Patricia J. Kobetts said.

But that is a typical tale these days in the city's schools.

Caught between an enrollment boom and a budget squeeze, officials of the nation's largest school district say they are almost out of options for handling the ever-increasing stream of students pouring through their doors.

In some schools, students have class in halls and stairwells, administrators use restrooms as offices, and children are shuttled from class to class like cattle.

"I have parents who cry when they tell me their kids have no desks," said Jan Atwell, the chairwoman of the Educational Priorities Panel, a local coalition of community groups that monitors school spending.

"You go in some rooms, and there is no place to sit but the radiator," Ms. Atwell said.

Ms. Atwell is a member of the Citizens' Commission on Planning for Enrollment Growth, a group of educators, parents, and city officials that released a report in January documenting the explosive growth in New York City school enrollment.

Over a five-year period ending in October 1993, the commission found, the city's public school enrollment jumped by 80,000.

By 2002, the city will pick up an additional 200,000 students, a number roughly equal to the size of the Houston school district, the country's fifth largest.

The district now enrolls more than one million students.

The Melting Pot

Immigration accounts for the largest chunk of the student-population boom, according to the commission.

The city absorbed nearly one million immigrants in the 1980's. Today, nearly a quarter of the students in the system are foreign born, from countries as different as Russia, Guyana, and China.

Commission members noted that the swelling numbers have reached crisis proportions just as the state and city have launched efforts to cut spending. Gov. George E. Pataki of New York has proposed freezing state aid to schools. In areas with growing enrollments, such as New York City, such a freeze amounts to a cut, critics argue. (See Education Week, Feb. 8, 1995.)

Also, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has proposed cutting roughly $200 million from the city's $7.7 billion school budget. Mr. Giuliani and others have charged that school officials mismanage their funds.

The commission acknowledges in its report that the schools "have not always made the most efficient and effective use" of money.

Still, it argues that funds devoted to renovation and new construction have never met the need. The panel projects, for example, that 180,000 new "seats" will be needed in schools over the next eight years, but notes that there is funding for fewer than 10,000.

In some of the city's community school districts, money to provide additional classroom space is drying up.

District 24 in Queens recently completed or is nearing renovations of two factories and a post office for school use. Still, the district's enrollment last year jumped more than 2,000, to 32,000, and more room soon will be needed.

"It's reached a point where there just isn't any more money to renovate," said August Saccoccio, the deputy superintendent of District 24.

Learning Suffers

City schools are moving to implement many of the strategies proposed by the commission to relieve overcrowding, according to a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines.

These include pilot programs to test year-round schools, increased leasing of space, and collaboration with businesses and nonprofit organizations that offer work-related experiences outside the classroom.

The city's central school board also may seek the authority to issue bonds for new construction, a move that would require the approval of both the state and the city.

For now, school officials say they are coping, but warn that learning has suffered.

A study this year by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, reported that students from the lowest-income families in overcrowded schools fare worse than similar students in other schools.

And at John Bowne High in Queens, the packed hallways and classrooms have shortened students' fuses, Ms. Kobetts said.

"When kids start bumping into each other," she said, "and there aren't enough teachers, you start seeing more discipline problems."

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