Estimates vary on how big a shortage of student space Jersey City schools will face, but a 2013 schools facility report predicted the city may not have enough room to accommodate a rise in student population after 2018.
“The report shows that the district will be short 7,000 desks,” said Bret Schundler, the former Jersey City mayor and commissioner of the state Department of Education who serves as a consultant for several local charter schools.
The impact of the predicted shortage could be reduced significantly if the school district moves ahead with some of the report’s recommendations. One of those is to allow 12 planned community centers throughout the city to take in three year old pre-kindergarten students.
Jersey City is required under its own district regulations to provide full day pre-k classes.
Several Board of Education members contacted about the report said a committee has been established to review and possibly implement the report.
Over the summer of 2013, Perkins Eastman, an international planning design and consulting firm, was hired to conduct a capacity analysis of all district schools. Their report reviewed existing space usage, updated floor plans, and assessed the physical capacity of each school.
The group also looked at the possible impact of housing development in Jersey City over the five years between 2013 and 2018.
“The pre-k all day program for three and four year olds has experienced heavy demand, associated in part with young families attracted to the new housing development.” – Perkins Eastman report
“A capacity analysis realized that space demand was concentrated at the elementary level, decreasing up through the middle and high school levels within the district,” the report said.
Elementary schools have little remaining space for specialized programs. Pre-k students have been learning in temporary trailer classrooms, with the majority of the trailers used at 20 percent over-capacity.
“A considerable amount of residential development has occurred in the city over the last decade and more is projected, given existing construction and approved or proposed new housing,” the report said. “The pre-k all day program for three and four year olds has experienced heavy demand, associated in part with young families attracted to the new housing development.”
Brief recession slowdown is over
From 2008 to 2012, new development resulted in more than 750 new students. The report suggests the increase from 2013 to 2018 will be fewer due to the delayed effect of a brief slowdown in new construction following the 2008 downturn in the economy. Bur beyond 2018 the school district will see a boom.
“Current housing construction has been slowed by financing constraints and the recent recession,” the report said, citing 2013 conditions. “New development pending and proposed for Jersey City beyond the enrollment forecast period is far more robust.”
Teeming with toddlers
In 2013, more than 2,000 four-year-olds entered the pre-k program, many of them housed in trailers outside fully-occupied elementary schools. The report also said a number of three-year olds were also being taught in community-based pre-k programs.
Ideally, the school district plan would have three-year-olds being taught in community-based programs while four-year-olds are brought into the regular schools.
Because several community facilities are no longer in operation and space is extremely limited in public facilities, the report said the drop in registration among three-year-olds may be because of a lack of room in the public schools.
In other words, parents may have been frustrated by the lack of facilities and gave up trying to register three-year-olds. But this will likely change once the district begins to provide additional facilities, adding to the total increase. The report suggests that as the district improves its pre-k facilities, the enrollment numbers will also rise.
Charter schools impacted even more
Charter schools also saw a dramatic increase of 28 percent from 2008 to 2013, the report said, and it predicted the increase will increase by another 48 percent by 2018.
“The largest gains in enrollment in the district are expected at the Kindergarten to fourth grade level,” the report said.
Although the increase affects lower grades for the moment, the report predicted the boom could affect middle and high schools later.
While the district is building new elementary schools, include ES 2 in Jersey City Heights to replace PS 20, Schundler said this will not be enough to handle the expected increase.
“Much of the burden is going to fall on charter schools,” he said.
Jose Arango, who works with JC Global Charter School, said the impact is likely the result of the increased development of residential units. He noted that charter schools also get students from places outside of Jersey City as well.
“My charter is getting children from Secaucus and other areas, but it is more because the parents love our curriculum of micro-society,” he said.
New Early Childhood Centers will help
Gina Verdibello, a parent and a candidate for school board this year, said one area of particular concern is the Journal Square area, where massive new residential development is taking place.
“There are two elementary schools in the Journal Square area and they are already over capacity,” she said.
The district, according to the report, has plans for the construction of 12 additional Early Childhood Centers to serve pre-k four-year-olds throughout the district.
Last year, Mayor Steven Fulop offered longer tax abatements for developments that included Early Childhood Facilities in their new buildings. But the Board of Education had problems with that arrangement, since it required the school district to come to leasing agreements with these developers.
Some critics of abatements found this particularly offensive, since an abated property does not pay school taxes, and the burden of the cost would fall on the shoulders of residents with unabated properties.
The report, however, suggested that some of these proposed Early Childhood Centers be relocated to other parts of the city in order to accommodate the expected demand.
Parents in Jersey City can choose what schools they wish to send their children to. Many flock to schools in Jersey City Heights, said Verdibello, and this often leads to over capacity in some schools and under capacity in others.
The temporary trailers pose some problems
Verdibello has been a critic of the school trailers for several years, saying they are inadequate to serve as classrooms. The report appears to support some of her concerns.
“These temporary trailers have been supporting some of the districts’ younger students with the addition of pre-k programs to the elementary schools,” the report said. “Their condition is not surprisingly inadequate from both an indoor environment and educational adequacy standpoint.”
Many of the trailers are 20 percent smaller than the recommended size for pre-k instruction. The report suggested the schools might reduce the class size from 15 to 12 in these trailers.
The report also suggested that some of the high schools do not use class room space to the best advantage and that changes should be made in this area as well.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.