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Five-Year-Olds at the Gate

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One evening in December, Eric Greenleaf entered his lobby at 150 Nassau Street and stopped short at a front-desk display. The building staff had lined the desk with holiday stockings, one for each child who lived there. “It was very cute,” said Greenleaf, a marketing professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “But it also gave me a chance to see just how many kids were in the building.”

From 124 occupied units, Greenleaf expected to count around 35 stockings—a number in line with the CEQR (or SEE-kwer, for City Environmental Quality Review) standard for Manhattan, allowing for a handful of private-school defections. As it turned out, the stockings numbered 51. By the time he finished his tally, the professor realized that the schools in lower Manhattan were going to be even more crowded than he had thought.

Downtown is the epicenter for Manhattan’s next wave of overcrowding, a problem that could dwarf what we’re seeing today. The downtown building boom since 9/11 has more than doubled the number of homes there between 2000 and 2008. (While construction has slumped this year, it is expected to add another 2,725 units between 2009 and 2011.) What’s more, by 2007, the proportion of downtown households with children under 18 had risen by nearly a third since 2004, to 25 percent—and four of ten childless couples said they were “very likely” or “extremely likely” to have children within three years.

At the elementary-school level, the CEQR for Manhattan is .12. In other words, the School Construction Authority would expect twelve public-school pupils from pre-K through fifth grade to be spawned by every hundred units of new development. A while ago, it occurred to Greenleaf that the ratio might be badly lagging demography in parts of Manhattan—that the borough might be edging closer to Staten Island (a CEQR of .21), if not Brooklyn (.29). With twins in second grade, the professor had a vested interest in seeing how the neighborhood’s rapid growth might play out in its schools. So he set about tracking the relationship between downtown births (as reported in the city Health Department’s vital statistics, a year after the fact) and the combined kindergarten enrollments at P.S. 234 and P.S. 89, the two zoned schools, plus P.S. 150, a small districtwide school that draws primarily from downtown.

After a post-9/11 dip in 2002, births in lower Manhattan went on a steady climb: from 565 in 2003 to a stunning 760 in 2006. Greenleaf found that somewhat more than half of these totals would be reflected in downtown’s public-school registers five years later. Last spring, he presented his findings to two overcrowding task forces, and his research became part of the parent-led campaign that spurred the city to open the Battery Park City and Spruce Street schools inside Tweed a year before their buildings were ready.

Still, the holiday stockings nagged at Greenleaf. Just before New Year’s, as the 2007 vital statistics came online, he paged down to the column for live births for the lower Manhattan community district: 824, another 8 percent higher than the year before. It was enough to confirm that the two new downtown schools would be stopgaps at best. Even assuming that all the downtown schools took in the United Federation of Teachers maximum of 25 per kindergarten classroom, Greenleaf calculated that they’d be well beyond their intake capacity by 2012. “That’s when the crunch comes,” he says.

And there is no good reason to believe that downtown’s population will stop there. Lower Manhattan is verging on 70,000 people. At a birthrate of fourteen per 1,000 (Park Slope in an off year), that translates to roughly 1,000 babies per annum—and 550 kindergartners, more or less, five years later. The five downtown schools are designed to hold only 375. The math looks inexorable.

To be sure, the DOE has a demonstrated talent for brinkmanship. It could forestall the crisis by moving the Spruce Street middle school elsewhere, or collapsing upper grades into larger sections. But the longer-term solution would be to build two additional elementary schools downtown, on top of the two incubators opening this fall. Aside from recessionary headwinds, the hitch is lead time; it typically takes five years or longer to site and open a new school in Manhattan. Which means they should have started two years ago.

John White, the DOE’s 33-year-old chief of portfolio development, has become the department’s public face and its fluent, unflappable voice. His job is to align programs and needs in a system of 1 million children, 1,200 buildings, and 130 million square feet—and, of late, to cool inflamed parents who see those needs as underserved. “I think we should frame crisis as a time when children’s well-being is endangered,” he says. “I would not characterize this as a crisis. It is a problem that we’re addressing.”


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