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Astoria’s PS 166 celebrates new addition

Though the line separating the old corridor from the new addition at PS 166 is hard to miss, Principal Lorraine Cecere sees the new addition as an equal boon to all 1,240 students in the Astoria elementary school.

"Old school, new school looks the same," she said as she toured the 65-year-old facility and its new wing with Queens Board of Education representative Terri Thomson and School District 30 Superintendent Dr. Angelo Gimondo last week on the first day of classes.

A single doorway in a central corridor divides the dull tawny walls of the original building from the bright turquoise-and-white cement blocks that line the new wing, separating the faltering lights of a dim hallway from the fluorescent glow of the new space.

But within the classrooms nearly identical arrangements of chairs and carpeted reading corners reveal the true intent behind the construction - to provide enough seats for every student, in rooms old and new.

The addition to PS 166 on 33rd Street in Astoria is one of two major construction projects in District 30 that opened in time for the first day of school last Thursday.

The other, the newly constructed PS 228 at 93rd Street and Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights, is the district's first early childhood center, an elementary school that only covers prekindergarten through the second grade.

The rush to complete the transformation of PS 166 lasted nearly until the doors opened for students Thursday.

"If you had been here last week - it's a miracle," Cecere said. "We still had wires hanging and we were knee-deep in dust."

The four-story addition houses a cafeteria on the first floor and three more levels with six classrooms each, allowing Cecere to reunite a growing student body that had previously been split between the school and a distant annex.

For two years PS 166's second graders had been bused to St. Patrick's parochial school in Long Island City, a space the district leases from the Catholic archdiocese to accommodate overflow from its own overburdened facilities.

While the addition at PS 166 allows the school to fit in 450 more students, PS 228 has added a few hundred seats to the district, bringing overcrowding in District 30 down to a deficit of only 1,000 seats.

"District 30 has done a fabulous job of finding sites and building schools," Thomson said as she prepared to tour the PS 166 addition.

Two new schools still in the pipeline for the district are PS 222, an early childhood center slated to open in fall 2002, and PS 234, a 900-seat elementary school due to be completed in 2003.

But times have changed for school construction. When a new wing was added to PS 69 in the middle of the last decade, the original school structure was completely renovated so old and new would match.

"The funding is not there anymore to do that kind of renovation," Gimondo said.

The aging parts of PS 166 did get some special amenities, however, like a front office space carved out of the old cafeteria and new furniture for some of the existing classrooms.

In Jackson Heights, the district's first early childhood center reflects a trend that has developed out of the difficulty of finding sizable properties for school construction.

"Right now I'm going crazy trying to find a site for a new middle school," Gimondo said. "We find a small site and we take it. We put an early childhood center there."

The focus on early childhood centers also reflects a change in educational philosophy whereby more attention is paid to teaching children at the youngest age possible .

"You have to invest very heavily in early childhood education," Gimondo said. "That foundation is critical."

PS 228 Principal Olga Iris Guzman agreed.

"By the time they get into first grade, these children know how to read," Guzman said. "You have to build a strong base."

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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