Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are experts at wall-building. At A-rated Francis Lewis High School, we have 4450 kids in a building designed for 1800. Whenever anyone complains about overcrowding, more walls appear.
Most walls go up in the middle of classrooms. They magically transform one room into two. Unfortunately, with 34 kids in such a room, you get a haphazard pile of desks you have to climb over to sit in, and the only real beneficiaries are kids who’d otherwise have trouble copying their neighbors’ test papers. While this may improve test results, you also hear every word on the other side of the wall, which makes concentration quite a challenge. Some of these rooms have no ventilation, while others have windows that open directly to fragrant dumpsters.
Rugged individuals who hate walls can move out back to the full sized trailers. Sometimes they have heat, and sometimes they even have AC (but not always). Sometimes their bathrooms have soap, working faucets, functional water fountains, toilet paper, or paper towels (you can never predict which). In fact, some kids claim, wretched though our bathrooms are, they’re not as bad as student bathrooms in the main building. I find that hard to believe, though I’m a little afraid to go in and check. If it’s true,though, maybe we’re not so bad off as I thought. And there’s no denying they don’t build extra walls in the trailers.
This notwithstanding, there are some downsides to trailer life. When the weather gets warm, the marching band rehearses “Louie Louie” right outside (I happen to know they don’t do that outside classrooms in the school building). When it gets cold, you tend to get sheets of ice on the floor. When it rains, you often have to plod through several inches of water both outside and in.
And somehow, they’re never quite what you’d call clean. There’s ancient black gum on the floors that was chewed back before anyone had ever heard of Monica Lewinsky. Some of it’s on the bathroom walls, memorialized forever beneath a fetching sky blue coat of paint. And every time you pick up a desk, you touch a piece that some trailer kid placed there years ago. You can only wonder what that kid is chewing now, and vainly wish the hand sanitizer planted around the main building had made its way out back.
A few months ago, our principal boldly entered the custodian’s lair and read him the riot act. As a result, we came in one morning and noticed the trailer smelled like Lysol, or some other cleaning product it had never before known. But alas, that was months ago, and now it’s as though it had never happened.
You put up with a lot if you don’t like walls, so you grin and bear it.
The very worst thing about trailers, though, is that you construct them to relieve overcrowding, but every time you do that, just like every time you wall up another perfectly good classroom, Tweed sends you another 200 kids and you still have no space.
Our school is one of the very best regular high schools in the city, quite possibly the best. It’s a miracle we’ve held up as well as we have. But if we are to survive, we can’t count on miracles. We need a break and we need a cap. I was heartened to hear projections we’d have 200 fewer students next year. I was disappointed when that projection was reduced to 100, and then, considering over-the-counter admissions, zero.
Now they’re talking additional students.
We cannot sustain unlimited overcrowding. No one can. It will reach the point, as it has in many schools, where our quality declines and our students suffer. And nothing would please the mayor and chancellor more than to erect even more walls, turning our school into five “academies,” or charter schools, or whatever they’re replacing neighborhood schools with this year.
That would be a shame. It would degrade the neighborhood and remove one of its anchors. Nothing adds value to a neighborhood more than a good school, and it’s about time this administration started making sure every neighborhood had one, rather than progressively sabotaging great schools like ours.
Arthur Goldstein teaches English as a Second Language at Francis Lewis High School in Queens. He will become its union chapter leader next month.