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Incoming Student Surge Causes Crowding in New York Schools

By Elissa Gootman

The New York Times -- NEW YORK

John F. Kennedy High School, a sprawling, eight-story building in the Bronx, has 4,590 students this year, 1,200 more than last. Lunch starts at 9:21 a.m., and all three of the cavernous cafeterias are packed until it ends more than five hours later.

“When the bell rings in this school, there is not an inch on any floor where you can walk,” said the principal, Anthony Rotunno. “It’s a mass of humanity moving from one place to another.”

At a time when city education officials are moving aggressively to create small high schools, most of New York’s 30 or so biggest high schools are at or over their limits.

In these schools, classes are being held in libraries, conference rooms and even a principal’s office. Hundreds, union officials say, are over the limit of 34 students. To cope, schools are stretching their days from dawn until after dusk, a system that blocks some afternoon students from joining certain sports teams or holding their usual after-school jobs. And when the bells ring between classes, the extra students competing for space in hallways and stairwells is raising the level of tension.

City officials say most of the problem has to do with a 7,000-student surge in the incoming ninth grade population and a longstanding need for more high school space. But principals say the demographic influx has been compounded by the phasing out of several large failing high schools and the creation of new small ones, some of which have taken root inside the very schools that were already at or over their limits. A small additional factor is the impact of a new federal law that allows students to transfer from schools deemed failing.

City Department of Education officials say that while that may be the case, the large schools’ suffering is in part a result of efforts to improve the system overall.

“They are growing pains, and we need to do it better,” said Michele Cahill, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein’s senior counsel for education policy. “This is a transition year.”

Cahill said a new office set up last month to handle enrollment and student placement issues would work to improve things in the future, saying, “We obviously think this is important, and we want to address it.”

Nonetheless, critics say the surge in incoming ninth graders was predictable and should have been addressed. They say this year is going to be among the most painful in recent memory for high schools citywide that have more than 3,000 students -- small cities to begin with.

For principals, it is a time of frustration and improvisation. For students, in many cases, disappointment.

At Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx, which has 3,700 students, about 300 more than last year and 500 more than the year before, officials scrapped plans for overlapping sessions and took the drastic step of splitting the school into two separate shifts.