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Five-Year-Olds at the Gate

Why are Manhattan's elementary schools turning away kindergartners? How the Bloomberg administration missed the baby boom it helped create.

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P.S. 41, the Greenwich Village School.  

Earlier this month, a throng of parents and 5-year-olds stormed the limestone steps of City Hall. Tiny towheads clutched black balloons and nagging placards: WE’RE STILL WAITING! They were waiting for kindergarten seats in hallowed District 2, a middle-class magnet that sprawls from York Avenue to the Battery. The children were earnest and adorable—and, to Mayor Bloomberg’s chagrin, there were entirely too many of them.

Based on numbers from the Department of Education (DOE), District 2 is 96 percent full in aggregate, and whole neighborhoods are overrun. On the Upper East Side alone, a thousand extra children are crammed into seven elementary schools. And now hundreds of rising kindergartners had been told that there simply wasn’t room in their zoned schools for the fall: 152 on the Upper East Side, 90 in the Village, dozens more downtown—plus a hundred or so refugees from Yorkville’s P.S. 151, still needing a home after their building was condemned in 2001.

Though the squeeze seemed sudden, it wasn’t sparked by the recession; the DOE had not been swarmed by downturned private-school families. (Girded by their own deep waiting lists, private schools can’t keep up with record demand; they harvest their 2,500 or so kindergartners, boom times or bust.) In reality, the public-school squeeze was a matter of demography. As Manhattan’s post-9/11 baby boom produced more and more youngsters in recent years, schools took more kindergarten sections than they’d been designed to hold. This just happened to be the year they ran out of extra rooms. “They knew this was coming,” says Andrew Beveridge, a Queens College demographer. “But they’re acting like, ‘Oh, Jesus, this is a surprise.’ ”

With the next school year approaching, families in limbo were understandably vexed. These were middle-class—many of them upper middle class—parents who’d played by the rules; they were planners, forward thinkers, with the savvy and income to plant their flags in optimal school zones. Now they were aghast to find their children’s futures altered by some tool of chance. “That’s the ultimate act of political cowardice—put in a lottery, so that everyone’s blameless,” said Michael Beebe, a hedge-funder whose daughter was wait-listed at P.S. 234 in Tribeca, three blocks from their loft.

While some cursed the DOE, others blamed themselves. After hearing that the Village’s dual zone for P.S. 3 and P.S. 41 was over capacity, Sacha Penn, a single mother and P.S. 3 graduate, tried to enhance her lottery chances by making the larger 41 her first choice. But her game theory backfired. Only 108 families chose P.S. 3, and all were taken in. Well over 200 picked P.S. 41, which had but 138 openings. “I should have researched it better,” Penn said tearily. “I didn’t take care of my daughter. I didn’t secure her a spot.”


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