Estimates vary, but no one disputes that hundreds, if not thousands, of classrooms in the New York City area are overcrowded to the point where children's ability to learn, let alone shine, are compromised. The Bronx may be the hardest hit, with some classrooms filled to the point where kids are sitting on radiators, in hallways or on floors. An obvious detriment to a quality education, overcrowded conditions have even been shown to increase aggressive behavior, exacerbating the problem. In some schools, overcrowding is so bad that lunch is scheduled for students during first period, which can be as early as 8 a.m. Whether your child is five or 18, overcrowding in the schools should be of concern to you. How can you fight it? And what should you do for your child while you're fighting?
Fight the Good Fight – Advocating for change in classroom size means organizing enough to get loud. The DOE typically butts heads against the UFT on this issue, citing differing statistics and budgetary requirements in order to make the problem go away. Parents may be caught in the middle without an understanding of what is required to shrink class size. An overburdened system can only stretch so far, but don't let that stop you from being a voice for your child's school, particularly when the State budget is being solidified. Town hall meetings focused on school zoning as well as state and city expenditures should be on your radar to attend. Enroll parents to advocate for lowered class size by making phone calls, requesting meetings and sending emails to local political figures, Congressional and Senatorial leaders and the Public Advocate. Get to know your representatives and, just as importantly, make sure they get to know you and what is important to your family and community.
What About Your Kid? – Despite your best efforts, your child may still be waking up and going to an overcrowded classroom each day. While no child should have to deal with this situation, some suffer more than others, craving more individualized attention and connection to their teacher.
- Your child's needs come first and if you deem it appropriate to jump ship, pursue placement in a smaller school, such as a charter school, which will be better able to meet your child's needs. It may be drastic, but you can also consider moving to a location where the schools support smaller classroom size. Overcrowded schools affect the community at large, creating an exodus of families who simply want their kids to get what all children deserve - a good education and a shot at success.
- If a change is not feasible, do everything you can to create a connection for your child with their teacher, principal and guidance counselor. Compassionately advocating for your child will be most effective if you direct your upset and anger not at the educators, but at the system. Overcrowding deflates teacher morale and those working within schools typically want this issue to be resolved as much as parents do. Stay calm and let your child's needs be known, requesting strategies for his or her success while awaiting resolution to the overcrowding issue. Also let it be known that you are willing to help in any way possible and consider yourself to be a partner in the school's success.
- Smaller class size has been linked to everything from improved SAT scores to lower rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy. If your child is stuck in a too-crowded classroom, fill in the gap by providing the personalized connection they may be lacking. Let them know you care. Work with them on homework and check their school schedule so you can keep on top of test dates and projects. In this case it really does take a village, so create a village that can support its children to get personalized learning and hands-on attention. Work with other parents, locate peer-to-peer tutoring sources and reach out to young adults, such as college students, interested in tutoring small groups of kids outside of school. Avail yourself of programs such as read-alouds at libraries and free workshops at galleries or museums. Get to know your local librarian and fill your home with books. Life can be exhausting, but despite work-related deadlines, or an unending pursuit of employment, parents who are a solid presence in their children's lives and educational futures can bridge the gap.
No, it's not fair. All of NYC's kids deserve better. Parents committed to picking up the slack between schools that are squeezed for space as well as dollars can and do help their kids thrive and become calmer learners, and better leaders.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.
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