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N.Y.C. Schools Brace for Annual Throng

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New York

For the first time in years, the largest school system in the nation is opening with more than enough seats for its new students.

Officials here say there are 22,000 spaces for the 18,000 newcomers expected when school begins this week. And they claim to have a better handle on enrollment this year because of an unprecedented early-registration campaign in the most overcrowded schools.

"I think everyone feels a great sense of achievement," said Patricia Zedalis, the chief executive of facilities for the 1.1 million-student district.

Yet the new space only dents the daunting demands on the massive system, which for years has been plagued by soaring enrollment and deteriorating facilities.

Thousands of children will still ride buses out of their neighborhoods to less populous schools or attend classes in closets, gymnasiums, and hallways.

And the arrival of state aid for 3,600 new teachers has been postponed until 1999 to give schools time to figure out where to put smaller classes.

"This is definitely not the end of the job," Ms. Zedalis said. "We're already worrying about next year."

About 20,000 new students--mostly immigrants--flood this city's schools every year. How the district copes with the booming population is worth noting as the nation confronts its second consecutive year of record school enrollment. ("West, South To Bear Brunt of Enrollment Boom," This Week's News.)

Switch to Portables

The efforts this summer to add classroom space were fueled by pressure from the teachers' union, extra money from the mayor, a state-funded capital-improvement budget, and bad memories of last year's first day of school, when 91,000 students had nowhere to sit. The additional 22,000 seats are coming from:

  • Increasing the use of "transportables," stand-alone trailers that consist of two classrooms, from 75 to about 180.
  • Opening six new schools, converting rooms like gyms and offices into classrooms, and leasing buildings--from synagogues to cultural centers.
  • Building six school additions, mostly through the speedy method of modular construction in which sections of the school are built at a factory and assembled at the site.

Though the city has worked aggressively this year to head off a repeat of last year's crisis, the increased reliance on portable classrooms has raised concerns. Half the new space is coming from trailers that sit on playgrounds, and some educators question whether the system is turning a temporary solution into a permanent one.

A Campaign Issue

"It's not a wise investment, though crowding kids into dilapidated classrooms may be worse," said Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "It all comes down to one question: Do we have the will to create educationally sound environments for our children? Many politicians are talking the game, but we're not investing enough resources."

Last week, the issue of overcrowded and rundown schools emerged in the city's mayoral campaign, in which Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, is heavily favored to win re-election to a second term.

One of his challengers, Democrat Ruth W. Messinger, ran a television commercial that showed a staged scene of children being taught next to a school urinal. Schools Chancellor Rudy F. Crew sharply criticized Ms. Messinger for airing the ad, and his spokesman, J.D. LaRock, said any bathrooms being used as classrooms have been appropriately remodeled.

'Worth a Try'

District 24, in the borough of Queens, is the most overcrowded of the city's 32 community school districts, operating at 122 percent capacity.

Peering through the bar-covered windows of two new transportables at P.S. 12 last week, the elementary school's United Federation of Teachers representative said they will allow the school to stop busing kindergartners to other schools.

But Phyllis Dalton said she wants to make sure that the intercoms work and that children are safe walking from the trailers into the main building on blustery days.

The portables occupy about one-fourth of the asphalt strip that passes for the red-brick school's playground.

"I guess they're worth a try," Ms. Dalton said. "It would be nice to have building additions put on, but money being what it is, they're better than nothing."

Ms. Dalton noted that she and other union representatives gained a powerful tool to combat crowded classrooms last year: the ability to file grievances over class size for an entire school.

Previously, individual teachers had to challenge violations of the class sizes spelled out in their contract. Last year, the UFT filed 17,000 such grievances, of which about 60 percent were resolved in the union's favor.

"We've helped bring the space problem to the top of the agenda," said Neill Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the union, which represents 130,000 school employees.

Early Registration

Amid the flurry of activity last week to head off opening-day confusion were early-registration programs in 13 community school districts, including District 24 in Queens.

At P.S. 89, Lillie Rehman attempted to enroll her 10-year-old daughter, Parisa, just two weeks after they had immigrated from Bangladesh. Wearing a traditional Bengali dress called a shelwar kameez, Ms. Rehman proferred an envelope containing her daughter's emergency-contact information, birth certificate, passport, immunization records, and other documents.

"I don't see measles," sighed Gloria Vergara, the school's pupil-personnel secretary, "She has to get that shot and come back."

Most foreign-born parents lack an essential document or two when they register their children, said Ms. Vergara, who also turned away a Chinese parent last week whose son was too old for the elementary school. But any paperwork that gets completed before the first day helps.

"Then it will be murder in here," she said. "The whole building will be packed to the hilt."

PHOTO: Left, Parisa Rehman, center, looks exasperated as secretary Gloria Vergara explains to her mother Lillie, second from left, that to register at P.S. 89 in Queens, they need paperwork proving that the 10-year-old girl has been immunized against measles. Union representative Phyllis Dalton, above, says that though she would rather see permanent additions built at P.S. 12 in Queens, where she teaches, she believes the portable classrooms added this year are worth a try. Her district is among the most crowded in the jam-packed New York City school system. --Benjamin Tice Smith

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