Illustration by Christopher Sleboda

The Jesse Isador Straus School on West 70th Street, a.k.a. P.S. 199, is one of those places that give parents hope for the New York City school system. Its teachers and after-school programs take home awards every year. Most of the diverse student population meets or exceeds state requirements on standardized tests—and that’s in a “catchment” school, meaning it can’t be selective because anyone who lives on its turf can attend. The parents are active and present. West Siders who are straining to make their mortgages consider it a godsend, a way to avoid adding $20,000 in private-school tuition (per kid!) to the annual household budget. Needless to say, parents like Julie Mallin take serious pains to live within P.S. 199’s catchment (roughly speaking, the West Side from 64th to 72nd). When private-school applications failed to turn up a spot for her son, “I specifically moved into the neighborhood for P.S. 199,” she says.

But P.S. 199 is under siege. Its student population has doubled in seven years, to 587. Since the real-estate market began its relentless ascent in the mid-nineties, neighborhoods with decent schools like P.S. 199 have grown coveted—and crowded. There are rumors of lotteries and rezoning in many of these areas, and parents like Mallin are very, very unhappy to find, all of a sudden, that a seat in the nearest public school may not be a given.

New development is largely to blame. At P.S. 199, more than 10 percent of the students come from Riverside Boulevard high-rises that didn’t exist a decade ago. Seven more residential buildings are under construction nearby and will bring at least 1,000 more units. Those buildings are put together explicitly for families with children: At one of them—the Avery, at Riverside Boulevard and West 65th—166 of the 274 units have two or three bedrooms. A decent guess is that this building alone will plop 50 more children into elementary school over the next few years.

What happens then? In 2004, P.S. 199 gave up one of its two art studios to add a kindergarten class. A year later, it gave up its lauded universal pre-K programs. In 2006, it lost its science lab. One of the two occupational-and-physical-therapy classrooms was sacrificed, too—never mind that there were more kids who needed it. Even the faculty lounge is gone. “We can give permits for all these residential towers,” says Mallin, who co-chairs P.S. 199’s political-action committee, “but we don’t pay attention to the schools. Here we are at the forefront of the financial and cultural capital of the world, and I’m supposed to be okay that my kid can’t do science in a lab or art in a room? The school is a victim of its success.”

This is not just one district’s problem. In every neighborhood with a beloved school, classrooms are stuffed—the burden and blessing of a city whose residents no longer bolt for the suburbs when the kids are born. The Manhattan New School (P.S. 290) has reached 155 percent of its capacity as one condo after another rises in Yorkville. Park Slope’s William Penn School (P.S. 321) has seen its kindergarten classes grow by 20 percent. East 33rd Street’s Mary Lindley Murray School (P.S. 116) gained 77 students this year, many from the 32 apartment buildings put up in its catchment these past two years. “When I toured the school [last year], the class size was maybe 20 to 23 kids, totally within the city and union limits,” says one new Murray Hill mom. By the time her child started in September, there were 28 per class, eight more than the state recommends. “This is not what I thought I was getting into.” When the Con Ed site, on the East River from 35th Street to 41st, gets seven new high-rises in a few years, the school will be swamped. “If you don’t build schools, you’re pushing families out,” rails Mary Silver, a mother of two at P.S. 116. “These families have helped stabilize the city … the system is imploding.”

There has been only one extensive study of class size and its effects, but its results are hard to dispute. Project star tracked 12,000 students from kindergarten to eighth grade in Tennessee. Students in smaller classes (13 to 17 kids versus 22 to 25) scored better on tests, got higher grades, were less likely to be held back, and were likelier to graduate from high school than their peers. Middle- and high-schoolers saw modest gains, too. (There’s even a weird bit of evidence that they’ll live longer: Graduating from a high school with classes no larger than 17 adds 1.7 life years, says Peter Muennig, a Columbia University researcher who led a study just published in the American Journal of Public Health.)

The city’s Department of Education agrees, in principle. It plans to build 105 schools and expand others, and just got approval for a five-year class-size-reduction plan. And, inevitably, that’s not enough. A chunk of the $153 million budget will go to hires for work-arounds, like team teaching, to decrease teacher-student ratios. “All of these other things are guesswork, but smaller class sizes and pre-K programs are proven,” says Muennig. Most significant, says Leonie Haimson, executive director of the nonprofit activist group Class Size Matters, the plan adds only 63,000 new seats when the city needs nearly twice as many. Triage style, the plan is designed to first address problems in the worst-performing schools in the city. That’s a good thing, as it will tend to help the neediest kids, for whom public schools are vital, over those from middle-class families with more options. But it also means that schools like P.S. 199, which had been doing well, face deeper and deeper trouble.

The agency responsible for figuring out where the city’s kids go is the School Construction Authority, a slow-moving outfit that relies on a murky stew of formulas that take into account capacity and enrollment projections. It’s becoming apparent that these models neither do the job nor allow for the huge demographic shift that’s going on. For starters, those enrollment projections, which the DoE compiles with the consultancy Grier Partnership, are extrapolated from birth rates and the number of kids who move from one grade to the next. Grier does not count housing starts in a meaningful way. Although the DoE maintains that it factors in new building (and other influences) later in the decision-making process, it has apparently missed the 32 condo towers that have encircled P.S. 116. “It’s extraordinary. Thirty-plus buildings and no capacity added to the school. What is there to do?” asks City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who constantly fields calls from fed-up constituents. (Besides, as a WNYC story reported last year, the DoE has been known to make mistakes in its modeling, miscounting principals’ offices as classrooms or failing to include administrative spaces for such extras as gifted programs.) The DoE characterizes the “growth picture” for P.S. 199 and P.S. 116 as “mixed and modest, with both schools experiencing fluctuation up and down over the past few years.”

On top of all that, the city looks at entire districts, not catchments, to make these decisions. No matter how crowded a school gets, if it sits in a district that, on average, seems underfilled, money won’t be forthcoming for changes. Oddly enough, District 3, where P.S. 199 is located and which is composed mostly of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, has been projected to see a nearly 7 percent drop in student population between 2005 and 2010. (Did nobody count all those strollers?) “Somehow the numbers are crunched in such a way that we don’t get money allotted,” says Sandra Levy, a member of the school’s Leadership Team. “And because we are a catchment, anyone [within the limits] can register and we have to find a place for them. It ends up very detrimental.” So in the case of P.S. 199, there are no plans to build or expand. According to the DoE, the school has space for 621 students, and it has 587 right now, so there’s no problem. And when parents reared up to ask Joel Klein about the issue at a recent community-education-council meeting, they say his answer was succinct: “Send your kids to private school.” (Klein’s office flatly denies the remark, calling it “completely inconsistent with his values and obvious commitment to public education.”)

So now what? Elsewhere in the country—in Florida and Georgia, for instance—developers have to pay impact fees when they build houses so new infrastructure can be created to serve the growing public. But no such policy exists here. School catchments could be redrawn to better distribute the population. But you know what would happen then: “If [owners] have property in a desirable catchment … they’d certainly fight it if they wouldn’t be able to go to that school,” says one parent. Can you imagine how they would squawk if, redirected to a less desirable school, their apartments suddenly lost that extra 10 percent of their worth?

Developers could be asked to add schools to their construction projects, but there’s been little movement in that direction. (Sheldon Solow recently agreed to add a school within his Con Edison project to take some pressure off P.S. 116, but its 650 seats will hardly accommodate all the new kids.) An annex has been built here and there—Tribeca’s P.S. 234 just opened one—but “what you see are stopgap measures in an attempt to deal with the building boom,” says Garodnick. “What we need is a long-term plan.”

For now, that plan is even more stopgap. At P.S. 199, only two rooms remain available for expansion: the music room and the remaining art studio. Most likely, they’re done for, since next year, the school will need two more classrooms for first and fourth grades. And the condos are still being built. “By the time these people move in,” says Mallin, “the school will not meet their expectations, simply because it’s overcrowded. At the rate it’s going, by 2009, there will be no classrooms left.”