by Briana Warsing
Interest in PS/IS 217’s Pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) Program, and the school’s Gifted & Talented (G&T) Program, far exceeds available space for the coming school year, and parents of waitlisted children are frustrated at their placements in off-Island schools, some as far away as Chinatown.
For the 2014-15 academic year, PS/IS 217 was not included in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Program, which provides full-day pre-K for City children. Instead, PS/IS 217 offered two half-day pre-K classes of two and a half hours each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, each with space for 18 students. Neither class was full this past year.
But things have changed. Full-day pre-K will be offered at PS/IS 217 for the coming school year. Initially, this was for one class of 18 students. However, with demand for these spaces so great that perhaps as many as 100 children were waitlisted – the New York City Department of Education (DOE) does not publicly share these data, though one parent confirmed that her child’s waitlist number is in the high 80’s – a class was added to accommodate 18 more students. Many children remain on the waitlist.
Island mom Josie Chamla’s daughter, Aimee, is currently 18th on the waitlist. Ms. Chamla says, “It’s always been our intention to have [Aimee] attend school at 217. Instead, my daughter was assigned to a pre-K that is located in the East Village. The commute from our home takes about an hour and 15 minutes each way, and that is with good transfer times between bus/subway/bus, and non-peak-hour traffic. Obviously, this is a non-option for us.” According to Ms. Chamla, 15 other Island children were assigned to the same school.
Ms. Chamla has been active in an effort to find a solution. “To see if there was really enough interest, I asked people to contact me if they were on the waitlist and would definitely accept a spot. I had 16 people respond definitely, and several others indicated that they would very likely accept a place. I think it’s safe to say that there is a very strong case for another class at 217.” Chamla has sent letters to Ben Kallos’ office, the Department of Early Childhood, the Office of the Chancellor of the DOE, and the Office of Mayor de Blasio.
Parents’ frustration is high as they are faced with either long commutes to off-Island pre-school programs, paying for private pre-school at Roosevelt Island Day Nursery to keep their kids local, or keeping their kids out of school entirely until kindergarten.
Island parent Rhonda Pringle says, “I am fortunate to both live and work on the Island, but my daughter was assigned to PS 111 [53rd between 9th and 10th] for pre-K. I received a call this morning asking if I would take the seat, and I said that I would not. I explained that it is just too far, and, living on the Island, it is better to have her in school on the Island. I do hope another class can be formed. It is not right for resident kids not to have space in their local school.”
The G&T Program
The G&T Program has also been the source of consternation among Island parents. Students are eligible from both District 2 (Roosevelt Island and a large section of Manhattan) and District 30 (which includes Jackson Heights, Long Island City, and Astoria). The rules regarding placement in City G&T programs give preference to siblings (if they meet minimum G&T eligibility) of current G&T students over others who have higher test scores but do not have siblings at the school. Island parents are concerned that the majority of seats will go to off-Island children because of the sibling preference. PTA member Erin Olavesen says, “I can imagine that it is a possibility, considering that [District 30 students] made up more than half of the class this year and more than half in previous years.”
While the sibling preference policy is longstanding and well-reasoned, it has led to some grumbling among Island parents whose children scored well enough on the Citywide test to gain admission to the PS/IS 217 program, but were not offered a space. Anecdotally (because DOE does not provide official data), this includes Island students who scored as high as the 94th percentile on the placement exam. (The cutoff for admission is the 90th percentile.)
The decision to include District 30 children in the G&T program was made in 2010, when only nine qualifying Island students were interested in registering for kindergarten for the 2010-11 school year. The DOE requires a minimum class size of 18-20 students to fund the G&T teacher. To save the program, the PTA, the school administration, local politicians, and parents got together to find additional students, by inviting District 30’s G&T students.
“There was huge interest in 217 from Queens families at our [school] tours [this spring],” says Olavesen. “I got so much positive feedback from District 30 families in Jackson Heights, Astoria, and Long Island City. The openness of our Island as a place for their kids to spend their school days was very appealing. Kindergarten classes integrating into our small community with their neighborhood walks and some local field trips make for the ideal kindergarten experience, in my opinion. The outdoor play space, the fact that daily recess was something that was not negotiable, and the small size of the school all caught their attention.” Olavesen’s son was in kindergarten this past school year, and said his G&T class was half Queens kids. She assumes the same to be true of the other kindergarten G&T class. She says, “Without the Queens kids, we wouldn’t have had enough for even one class.”
Of the Queens families, Olavesen explains, “The students from District 30 in Queens have elevated and stabilized the G&T program at our Island school. These families from Queens saw an opportunity in our school at a time when few Islanders were willing to take the leap of faith and invest in it. The families from District 30 are some of the most active on the PTA, and contribute a great deal of time and money to our community school. I am thankful that the program was opened to these families, because their investment in our school increased enrollment in the G&T program and ensured that it would continue.”
Loss of a G&T Class
To complicate matters further, one less G&T class will be offered this coming year. In 2014-15, there were two kindergarten G&T classes with room for 25. However, both classes were under-enrolled, with 14 and 15 students. As a result, the program was scaled back for 2015-16 to one class of 25 students. Olavesen clarifies that the problem isn’t limited to pre-K for G&T. “There are a similar number of families who tested in this year for the first-grade G&T program, with scores as high as 96, but there are no seats for them because of a move from having three grades-1-and-2 bridge classes to having only one G&T class at each grade level. So, the reduction in G&T spots spans into first grade as well.”
Olavesen advises parents, “As someone in the school and working with the PTA and administration, I can assure you that Ms. [Mandana] Beckman [the school principal] and the PTA want the school to grow. Please do not misinterpret the limited G&T classes and pre-K classes as resistance from the administration to growth. I urge you to continue to pursue 217 as your first choice for pre-K and G&T. We need full classes to have the most effective budget.”