When there was no room for Alicia Gljiva’s son in a Long island City preschool, there was no longer room for Alicia Gljiva in Long Island City.
In 2013, the older of Gljiva’s two sons was denied a spot in the pre-K program at PS/IS 78, the public school in the Hunter’s Point South neighborhood of Long Island City. Gljiva feared that competition for school seats would increase with the area’s rapid development. Unwilling to pay for private schools for two children on top of rising rents, Gljiva and her family left for Sunnyside.
“We planted roots here. This is our home,” Gljiva said of Long Island City. “We just felt forced out and pressured out.”
Gljiva returned to Hunter’s Point South in 2014, after a friend found her an affordable apartment. Her older son is now a first-grader at PS/IS 78 and her younger son will attempt to enter the program next year. But PS/IS 78 provides the only public elementary school in Hunter’s Point South, and with overcrowding still presenting looming difficulties Gljiva questions whether the school is a viable long-term option for her children.
During this school year’s application process, 50 children were waitlisted for PS/IS 78’s kindergarten – a result of the rapid influx of young families into Hunter’s Point South. The Department of Education resolved the situation by creating two new kindergarten classes, making a total of six kindergarten classes and two pre-K classes in PS/IS 78’s Early Education Center. (Two temporary pre-K classes that are run separately from PS/IS 78 are also housed in the Center this year.)
The Early Education Center usually houses pre-k through second grade, but to make room for the new additions, all three second grade classes moved to the middle school building, which traditionally holds third through eighth grade.
This solution puts pressure on PS/IS 78’s middle school and raises questions of long-term sustainability. The neighborhood’s population continues to grow, and families are concerned that future development plans don’t include new schools.
Since 2006, Long Island City has gained 8,600 new residential units – over 6,000 in Hunter’s Point, according to numbers released in August by the Long Island City Partnership, the development corporation operating the neighborhood’s Business Improvement District. The Partnership estimates that 22,500 new residential units are currently being planned or constructed in Long Island City.
These new residents include families with young children. Enrollment at PS/IS 78 increased from 292 in 2012 to 475 in 2014, according to Department of Education data. Kindergarten enrollment alone grew from 50 in 2012 to 91 in 2014.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of space in the upper grades. Only 68 children were enrolled in grades six through eight in 2014. In meetings to address overcrowding, the school district has hinted that it may need to eliminate PS/IS 78’s middle school to accommodate incoming young children. PS/IS 78 did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
For those like Gljiva, who chose Hunter’s Point South as a stable place to raise a family, the possibility of a crowded elementary school and limited neighborhood middle school options leaves the future uncertain.
“You’ve basically got this pyramid where there are very few kids at the top, a whole bunch of new kids at the bottom, and the city didn’t really plan effectively for this tremendous growth,” said Andrew Kleinberg, a blogger and father of two school-aged children. His website, LICTalk, covers Long Island City issues.
The problem, Kleinberg said, is developers envisioned Long Island City as a short-term stop for young families. “Instead, many people made the choice to stay.” The possibility of eliminating the PS/IS 78 middle school disrupts long-term planning.
“We spent years positioning ourselves because we thought this neighborhood was great,” said Sabina Omerhodzic, a physician and mother of three in Hunter’s Point. She and her husband based their career choices on staying in Long Island City, strategically moving into an expensive apartment down the block from PS/IS 78.
But increasing population without corresponding school infrastructure puts those plans in peril.
This past summer, Omerhodzic initiated a petition for a new “new preK-8th grade school” in Hunter’s Point. She said that when she sent it to Mayor Bill de Blasio, Department of Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña and Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, it had 1,100 signatures. Gljiva’s name may have been one of them. Many petitions were circulating at the time, and she lost track of which she signed. “I signed all the petitions I could,” she said.
Jason Fink, deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, didn’t comment on whether the chancellor or anyone else at the Department of Education reviewed Omerhodzic’s petition. He did say in an e-mail that “we have committed to building over 1,900 new seats in District 30 alone, and we will continue to listen to families in the district – and across the city – to help address their needs.” District 30 includes Long Island City, Astoria, Woodside, Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst. (Fink left the Department of Education in October after being interviewed.)
The 1,900 new seats are in the capital budget of the Department of Education’s current five-year plan. “That means they will be built, even if they have not all been sited as of now,” Fink said. The seats could be sited anywhere in the district.
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Omerhodzic’s petition.
Jason Banrey, the press secretary for Jimmy Van Bramer, the area’s city council member, acknowledged that “the school infrastructure hasn’t kept up with demand” in Long Island City. However, Banrey said, Van Bramer has fought overcrowding aggressively, citing expansions of six schools over the course of Van Bramer’s six years in office. Four of these schools were in Woodside, one was a Hunter’s Point high school, and one was an annex to PS/IS 78.
“These schools are within those [Long Island City] parents’ zones,” Banrey said.
With the exception of the PS/IS 78 annex, these solutions do not directly address the Hunter’s Point South’s middle school situation. While parents can send their kids to other District 30 schools, those in Woodside and other parts of Queens are dealing with similar, if not worse overcrowding.
“Overcrowding is not an LIC issue. It’s across the board,” Gljiva said.
She doesn’t think that moving kids to other crowded districts is productive, and it ignores the plans of families like hers, who informed their choice to come to Hunter’s Point South in part because of the good reputation of PS/IS 78.
“Obviously, when you move to a neighborhood, you look at the schooling when you have a family,” she said.
So once again, her family’s future in Long Island City is up in the air.
“Because of the growth in the neighborhood, I find it unrealistic to not have a plan,” she said.
— James Farrell