Starved for answers, the parents swapped rumors of where their 5-year-olds might end up: Chinatown? Brooklyn? Roosevelt Island? For the P.S. 151 left-behinds, the DOE’s worst-case scenario was a junior-high-school basement. “They’re keeping us in the dark,” fumed Glenn Hardy, a criminal-defense attorney. “Every week, we’re getting a different story.”
Even taken together, the numbers of those affected were perhaps not so compelling—unless, of course, your child was among them. But in a time of shaken moorings, the waiting lists had resonance. “Enrolling kids in kindergarten is like picking up the garbage and making the streets safe,” says Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of Insideschools.org. “It’s a basic government service that anyone expects.” When the administration fails in such a task, says Brad Hoylman, who chairs Community Board 2 in the Village, “it’s a crisis, and not only of seats. It’s a crisis of parental confidence in the system.”
The waiting lists were but one symptom of the overcrowding causing parents concern. Class size rose this year citywide, despite a $149 million state earmark to lower it. Principals have had to expropriate science labs, art studios, even libraries for needed classroom space. At P.S. 290 on East 82nd Street, according to parent leader Andy Lachman, a reading class convenes in a small bathroom—sans sink and toilet, to be fair. A year ago, a mother named Anna took a tour of crème-de-la-crème P.S. 6 off Park Avenue, alma mater to Chevy Chase and J. D. Salinger. As they passed what looked like a janitor’s closet, Anna peered inside the dim and airless space. She saw four kindergartners huddled around a single desk for small-group math: Dickens meets differentiated learning.
The picketing children at City Hall were evidence of vast demographic shifts in the city and early warning signs of what lies ahead. They were also proxies for big questions: How has the school system changed—and whom, now, is it for? What’s the more important goal—school choice or community cohesion? And how will Bloomberg sustain a middle-class presence in the system when its interests are sometimes at odds with his agenda? As the State Legislature revisits the issue of mayoral control, the waiting lists could be seen as a case study of the Bloomberg era—what works and what doesn’t.
Back in 2002, when Bloomberg won direct and unprecedented control over the city’s schools, he confronted a system that was fractured among 32 district power bases—a fair number of them dysfunctional. For too long, Bloomberg thought, the business of education had been left to amateurs. Under his reign, the DOE would be a model of corporate discipline and streamlined hierarchy, freed from the sway of special interests or the babble of debate. His chancellor, former Bertelsmann CEO and antitrust czar Joel Klein, would take hard stands for uniformity and standardization; no child would be neglected, not in the farthest reaches of town. Their goal was nothing short of “transformation.”