In this popularity contest, nobody wins

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Before the bell even rings to indicate the end of seventh period at 1 p.m. at Francis Lewis High School in Fresh Meadows, students carrying bookbags overflowing with papers flood the hallway.

They are the lucky ones, rushing from lunch to class before the real crowds appear, when students emerge from their classrooms and swarm the hallways, trying to edge their way through the sea of teenagers to get to class only a couple of minutes late — a real feat in a high school that has nearly twice as many students as it was originally built for.

“The school gets more and more crowded as the years go by,” said Francis Lewis senior Sharon Michilovich of Flushing. “This year is definitely the worst.”

Francis Lewis, like many schools in Queens, is bursting at the seams. The high school has more than 4,550 students in a building that is supposed to accommodate no more than 2,400, according to the school’s principal, Musa Ali Shama.

Although Shama and his students praise the school’s academics — it is one of the most selective high schools in the city and had 13,000 applicants from throughout the city for this past fall — they say the overcrowding definitely has negative side effects.

For example, some students have to take what they call “polar bear gym class,” in which they frequently brave the outside in the cold winter months because of limited gym space indoors. The school day runs from 7:15 a.m. to 6:40 p.m., during which the the number of students is staggered in the building because Francis Lewis cannot accommodate all the pupils at once. There are five shifts of students entering the building, Shama said.

Juniors and seniors take earlier courses while freshmen and sophomores typically take classes later in the day, with some staying in school until after 6 p.m. — meaning many of the younger students cannot participate in sports and other after-school activities because they occur while the teens are still in class.

Shama and other representatives from Francis Lewis met with members of the city Department of Education last week and they created a plan to reduce the number of students to about 4,000 or below in the near future.

“We’d like it to come down to 4,000,” Shama said. “That would let us finish school at 4:30 p.m. In this area of Queens we’re a highly desirable school, so wanting it to come down to 2,400 isn’t realistic. To ask for that would be crazy.”

Shama and Francis Lewis are not alone when it comes to overcrowded schools. Queens has more students in overcrowded classrooms than any other borough, according to a recently released United Federation of Teachers report.

There are about 6,749 oversized classes in the city, with 3,500 in Queens alone, according to the report issued earlier this month. Four of the five most crowded high schools in the city were in Queens and included Richmond Hill, Benjamin Cardozo in Bayside, Forest Hills, Long Island City and Flushing. The fifth was Midwood in Brooklyn. It was unclear where Francis Lewis ranked in this report.

The UFT is defining “overcrowded” as classrooms that have more than the class size limits established by DOE agreements with the UFT, along with state and City Council mandates. High schools are supposed to have no more than 34 students in each class, junior high schools should have no more than 30, grades four through six should have no more than 32, and grades one through three are expected to have a 28-student limit.

Francis Lewis had 75 oversized classes in the beginning of the year, but has halved the number in part by transferring pupils out of crammed classrooms into courses that have fewer than 34 enrollees, Shama said.

“Bayside, Cardozo, Francis Lewis high schools, they’re all really, really scary,” said Rob Caloras, president of the Community Education Council in District 26. “Teachers can’t build relationships with students when you have high school classes with 40 students. Even 30 is a ridiculously high number. When you start reaching those numbers, how are teachers supposed to give students individual attention?”

There are varying explanations for why Queens has more overcrowded classrooms than the other boroughs. Shama and Francis Lewis students said their high school has seen its numbers skyrocket because of word of mouth, while state Assemblyman Mark Weprin (D-Little Neck) said an increase in the number of young families and immigrants moving into the borough has brought more students to Queens’ school system.

“We have the most new immigrants in the city,” Weprin said. “A lot of new families have moved to Queens because we have some of the best schools in the city. We’re getting a big influx of young families, and I don’t think Manhattan gets as big an influx.”

Weprin and fellow Assemblyman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows) have said they want the DOE to build more schools and create additional classrooms in Queens.

“We’re growing, and that’s a good thing,” Lancman said in a previous interview. “But population growth creates challenges. There aren’t enough class seats for kids coming into Queens .%u2026 The class sizes in Francis Lewis High School are off the charts. The city needs to build more schools.”

Weprin agreed and said the city should try to rent more buildings to use for classroom space.

“There’s so many vacant stores around town,” Weprin said. “Maybe the city can start leasing these properties when the prices are good.”

DOE spokesman William Havemann said the city has successfully been working on decreasing class size in Queens.

“Earlier this year, we opened eight new school buildings in Queens,” Havemann said. “These new buildings brought the number of new seats this administration has opened in Queens to 28,323, the most in any borough. We’re also on track to build more than 18,500 seats in Queens, both through the remainder of the last capital plan and the new capital plan that took effect last summer. These include six new school buildings that will open in Queens next year alone.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 174.

Updated 6:29 pm, October 10, 2011
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