The 10 portable classrooms outside Public School 19 in Corona, Queens, were supposed to be temporary.
Sixteen years later, they are still there, holding nearly double the elementary schoolchildren they were meant to and struggling with age. The heating system malfunctions in the winter, forcing students to sit through lessons wearing coats, scarves and hats.
In the main building at P.S. 19, there are monitors to keep order in the lines that form outside the bathrooms, and students’ trips are timed. The wait can be too long for some of the younger students.
Lourdes Castillo said her 6-year-old son came home at least once every week with his pants wet. Bertha Trix said her 5-year-old daughter told her she had to choose between eating or using the bathroom during lunchtime because there was no time for both.
“On most days,” Ms. Trix said, “she comes home hungry.”
Parents in well-to-do neighborhoods of Manhattan and in Park Slope, Brooklyn, have become accustomed to kindergarten waiting lists and congested classrooms, problems that may become worse if the city carries out its proposal to lay off 4,100 teachers. But nowhere in the city has crowding been as acute and as intractable as in Corona.
As immigrant families have flooded into Corona in recent years, their children have poured into the neighborhood’s schools. Crowding has been an issue for at least two decades, but it has become especially severe since 2005; in District 24, which encompasses Corona and six other neighborhoods in western Queens, student enrollment has gone up 12 percent in that time, while citywide, it has remained flat.
Since 2003, the city’s Education Department has added 8,224 school seats in the district, but it still has the largest class sizes in the city in grades 1 through 3. More than a third of first graders attend a class with at least 28 students, compared with 13 percent of first graders citywide. The department plans an additional 4,491 seats by 2014, and a new 1,100-student school is scheduled to open four blocks from P.S. 19 in 2015.
It has been a struggle to keep up with growth. In 2008, the city opened a new school, the Pioneer Academy, across the street from P.S. 19. But Pioneer, which was meant to have 5 kindergarten classes a year, had 7 in its first year and 10 the next.
It is adding a grade each year, but already it has so many students that the principal, Cecilia Jackson, said she was not sure there would be room for the fifth grade in 2013. Its kindergarten waiting list, with 111 zoned students, is second only to that of Public School 169 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
There are already fifth graders using Pioneer Academy’s building: in an emergency declaration last fall, the Education Department moved the fifth grade of another packed Corona school, Public School 16, into Pioneer. Last month, the city’s Panel for Educational Policy voted to move the fifth grade of P.S. 16 to yet another school in the fall, one and a half miles away, because Pioneer needed the space to continue expanding.
“What’s happening here is a simple game of musical chairs,” said State Senator José R. Peralta, who represents the area.
The school crowding problem in Corona and elsewhere can be traced, in part, to the 1970s, when the Board of Education sold, gave away or demolished nearly 100 schools as enrollment dropped and a severe crisis crippled the city’s finances. In the early 1990s, just as the population was taking off again, renewed economic troubles forced the city to cut the school construction budget in half, and since it takes many years to find property, buy it and then design and build a school, the repercussions of those cuts are still being felt.
P.S. 19, which occupies an entire block on Roosevelt Avenue, between 98th and 99th Streets, was already one of the city’s most congested elementary schools in 1995 when the portable classrooms were installed.
To its principal, Genie Calibar, managing the school’s 2,005 students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, requires logistical contortion. She uses all of the main building’s five doors in the morning to make sure no one is late for class, holds staggered dismissals in the afternoon to avert chaos and breaks up school assembly into multiple sessions, the only way everyone can fit in the auditorium, she said.
The cafeteria serves many purposes: as a music room, a study hall for students who need extra help in math and a classroom for immigrant mothers who learn English through a program housed at the school.
A broom closet was retrofitted to serve as the parent coordinator’s office. Special-education students have physical therapy in a third-floor hallway, between a classroom and a tall file cabinet.
But bathrooms are one thing that cannot be improvised. The occasional embarrassment does occur, but students have learned to cope. María Ramirez said her 5-year-old son, who is in kindergarten, drinks only a little bit of the juice she packs for him every day so he will not feel like going to the bathroom at school.
“The first thing he does when he comes home is run to the bathroom,” Ms. Ramirez said.
Alejandra Ruiz and Placida Rodriguez, organizers at Make the Road New York, an advocacy group with a focus on recent immigrants, have been handing out fliers outside crowded schools in Corona to try to cajole parents into asking for more room for their children.
The hard part, Ms. Ruiz said, is persuading the many illegal immigrants among them to speak up. “They’re afraid of drawing attention to themselves,” she said.
Maria Quiroz, president of the Parents’ Association at P.S. 19, delivered a petition to the city two years ago asking it to remove the portable classrooms and to build a brick-and-mortar extension to the main building.
In March, the local City Council representative, Julissa Ferreras, held a meeting with Education Department officials to make the same demand.
“They said they didn’t want to have a megaschool for little kids,” Ms. Ferreras said. “Guess what? P.S. 19 already is a megaschool. What the kids there need is more space.”