Amid concerns that enrollment at the city’s public schools has plunged since the pandemic, officials with New York City’s Department of Education said it is poised to release new numbers in the coming days. The city will finalize its rosters by October 31st, and announce the tally shortly thereafter.
At a New York City Council hearing on class size Wednesday, Council Member Mark Treyger grilled officials on the current total.
“We can give you that number very soon,” said the education department’s Deputy Chief Academic Officer Lawrence Pendergast. “We committed to sharing that data at the end of October and we are going to honor that commitment.”
“The DOE knows how many students are in each class every day,” said Treyger, who chairs the council’s education committee. “They’re choosing not to share.”
Last winter, officials said enrollment for the 2020-1 year was down to about 960,000, and kindergarten applications for fall 2021 plummeted. The numbers have been declining for years from a high of 1 million, but parents and educators speculate that the total is down more steeply now as families have left the city for the suburbs and parents frustrated by hybrid learning last year enrolled their children in charter and parochial schools. Some parents have kept kids home because they are worried about exposure to COVID-19.
Pedro Dones, a middle school teacher in the Bronx, said he has heard his school’s enrollment is down 100 students from around 950 pre-pandemic. “We miss our children and we want our kids in the building,” Dones said. However, Dones said the apparent decrease in enrollment has led to smaller class sizes, boosting students’ learning.
“Wonderful things are happening in my classroom because of this,” he said. “Smaller classes will always lead to more effective instruction and community building in the classroom.”
The issue of class size was central to Wednesday’s hearing: New legislation would shrink classes by increasing the square footage required per student, both to improve academic outcomes and as a health precaution. It would mandate a minimum of 35 square feet per student, up from the current ratio of 20 feet per student. That could shrink average classrooms down to 14 to 21 students, depending on the size of the room. Currently, high school classes are capped at 34 students, middle school classes at 30 students, and first-through-sixth-grade classes at 32 students. If passed, the bill would reduce classes over three years starting in 2022.
But education department officials who testified before the council Wednesday said the bill is impractical.
“The proposed legislation would create a seat deficit at every grade level,” said Chief Academic Officer Linda Chen. She said the de Blasio Administration has committed to constructing 83,000 additional public school seats through 2025, of which about 50,000 have already been added.
The city’s Independent Budget Office said, using 2019-20 enrollment numbers, nearly half the city’s schools would not be able to comply with the class size legislation, affecting more 100,000 students. Classrooms that devote space to bookshelves, reading rugs, or teachers desks would be even more crunched. Schools would also have to hire additional teachers to accommodate smaller classes.
But Leonie Haimson, executive director of the advocacy group Class Size Matters, emphasized that class size is the key ingredient to student success.
“Students who are in smaller classes do better in every way that can be measured. They get better grades, higher test scores, are more likely to graduate from high school, go on to college and graduate with a STEM degree,” she said. “Disciplinary problems also sharply fall when classes are smaller.”
She said following a year and a half of disrupted learning, and the ongoing health risks from the pandemic, the need for smaller classes is greater than ever, and the city has an infusion of state and federal funding to make it happen.
“If we cannot finally agree as a city in the middle of a pandemic that we need a plan … to lower our class size, I don’t know where we’re ever going to get to it,” said United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew.
This article has been updated to reflect that the public school enrollment high was 1 million, not 1.1 million (the 1.1 million includes charter students).