ERIC Identifier: ED384682
Publication Date: 1995-07-00
Author: Burnett, Gary
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Overcrowding in Urban Schools. ERIC/CUE Digest Number 107.
In January 1995, the Citizens' Commission on Planning for Enrollment Growth
submitted a report, "Bursting at the Seams," to the Chancellor of the New York
City Board of Education, Ramon C. Cortines. In its report, the Commission,
comprised of educators and policy-makers specifically convened by the Chancellor
to study the rapid and ongoing growth of student enrollment, outlined a series
of proposals to offset the resultant serious overcrowding in New York City
Because of a dramatic increase in immigration, the New York City schools are
perhaps the hardest hit by overcrowding among urban schools in the United
States; the city as a whole faces a projected enrollment of well over one
million students by the year 2002. Still, the conditions that led to the
formation of the Citizens' Commission are not unique to New York; particularly
in the inner-cities, where space for new construction is at a premium and where,
in any case, funding for such construction is improbable, many school systems
simply do not have the room to grow in order to accommodate increasing numbers
of students. As a result, students elsewhere, like their counterparts in New
York, find themselves trying to learn while jammed into spaces never intended as
classrooms, such as libraries, gymnasiums, laboratories, lunchrooms, and even
Thus, although the proposals of the Commission were developed in response to
a set of conditions specific to New York, they may be used as guidelines for
other cities striving to provide an effective education in the face of
ever-increasing numbers of new students being taught in limited classroom
THE IMPACT OF SCHOOL OVERCROWDING
Research on the impact of
school overcrowding on student achievement has, surprisingly, been inconclusive,
in part because of a dearth of studies tracking the progress of students in
overcrowded schools over time. Still, there is some evidence, particularly in
schools with a high proportion of students living in poverty, that overcrowding
can have a dire impact on learning. A study carried out as part of the
Commission's work found, in fact, that students in such schools scored
significantly lower on both mathematics and reading exams than did similar
students in underutilized schools. In addition, when asked, students and
teachers in overcrowded schools agreed that overcrowding negatively affected
both classroom activities and instructional techniques. Crowded classroom
conditions not only make it difficult for students to concentrate on their
lessons, but inevitably limit the amount of time teachers can spend on
innovative teaching methods such as cooperative learning and group work or,
indeed on teaching anything beyond the barest minimum of required material. In
addition, because teachers must constantly struggle simply to maintain order in
an overcrowded classroom, the likelihood increases that they will suffer from
burnout earlier than might otherwise be the case.
It is unquestionable that overcrowding has a direct and often severe impact
on the logistics of the school day, forcing changes in schedules and making
disruptions and noise part of normal operating procedure. For example, in order
to accommodate all students, lunch periods must often begin as early as 9 a.m.,
and must extend far into the afternoon. Teachers cannot use a single room for
the full day, but must transport their materials from classroom to classroom.
There also may be too few lockers for the number of students, and, because they
must navigate crowded hallways, students may require additional time to travel
from class to class. Perhaps most seriously, electives such as art, music, and
shop classes may have to be eliminated, because of the need to use all available
space for educational "basics." Finally, administrators must devote their time
and energies to maintaining order, rather than undertaking the more important
work of leading efforts to improve their schools.
STRATEGIES FOR RELIEVING OVERCROWDING
Increases in a school
district's enrollment may come as a result of normal fluctuations in local birth
rates, a one-time influx of new residents, or, more seriously, may be part of an
ongoing trend. In cases where increases in school enrollment are expected to
continue, the only guaranteed long-term means of relieving overcrowding is the
expensive and time-consuming process of building new schools or of renovating
and adding to existing schools, undertakings that can be nearly impossible in
already underfinanced urban schools.
However, in cases where increases in enrollment may be temporary, or where
stop-gap measures are needed while new schools are being built, there are a
number of short-term solutions that districts may take to help relieve
overcrowding. In general, these strategies fall into two broad categories:
finding new space and using time to more fully utilize existing space.
FINDING NEW SPACE
LEASING. Leasing provides a quick,
cost-effective way of obtaining additional short-term space. Not only can spaces
for leasing be identified and acquired in a fraction of the time needed to
acquire similar spaces through new construction, but leasing can represent a
significant per seat savings over the cost of construction. Further, leases can
be negotiated with lease-purchase agreements, allowing districts to buy spaces
at the end of the lease period if necessary.
COLLABORATIVES. Local colleges and universities, businesses, and non-profit
organizations may have spaces available for use, allowing students to receive
instructional or non-instructional services in settings outside of traditional
school buildings. Such arrangements can range from work-experience programs to
courses offered in the evenings and weekends. By developing collaborations with
such organizations, districts can not only find needed space for students, but
can also enrich their educational offerings.
RELOCATING ADMINISTRATIVE SPACE. In many cases, administrative offices may be
located within schools. Moving them to a centralized location can free up space
for instructional use.
DISTRICT-WIDE REDISTRIBUTION OF SPACE. New York City districts are atypical
in the degree to which they offer students the option of attending a school
outside of their own neighborhood; thus, the Commission's recommendations for
school redistricting and rezoning may have only limited relevance for other
urban districts as they now operate. However, these other districts may also be
able to redefine the legal and geographical boundaries that determine which
students attend particular schools. In most overcrowded districts, it is likely
that certain schools are significantly overutilized, while others house fewer
students than their space could allow. By shifting district or zoning
boundaries, building utilization can be equalized across the district, thus
relieving some of the burden on overcrowded schools and making more efficient
use of under-enrolled schools.
In addition, districts with magnet and special school programs that draw
students from across the district can place these programs in underutilized
schools, thus better distributing students within available space.
USING TIME TO MORE FULLY UTILIZE EXISTING SPACE
two fundamental methods of using time in order to ease the burdens caused by
school overcrowding: extended day programs and year-round education.
EXTENDED DAY PROGRAMS. Schools can increase their capacity by beginning the
school day earlier and ending it later, and by having students attend in shifts.
In the most extreme version of such extended day programs, half of a school's
students attend only in the morning, while the other half attend only in the
afternoon, thus doubling the number of students taught in a single space during
the day. Other types of extended day programs might comprise overlapping shifts.
However, there is some evidence that split shifts negatively affect not only
student achievement, but also--and more radically--school climate. Thus they
tend to be used only as a last-chance option for relieving overcrowding.
YEAR-ROUND EDUCATION. By changing from a nine-month to a twelve-month
calendar, schools can accommodate more students in existing buildings. With this
strategy, all students attend school for the same number of days--180--every
year, but take several short vacations rather than a single three-month-long
summer break. Most programs divide students into three or four "streams"; while
one group is on vacation, another uses the vacationing group's classroom space.
While year-round education relieves overcrowding and has some educational
benefits (such as increasing students' retention of what they have learned), it
also has some drawbacks: parents may resist changes in the traditional school
year; school maintenance and student transportation costs may increase; and, in
warmer climates, schools may have to be fitted with air conditioning for summer
classes, which may be prohibitively costly.
CONCLUSION: A STUDENT SPACE "BILL OF RIGHTS"
adequate spaces for education is not simply a matter of ensuring a certain
number of square feet of classroom space per student. For learning to truly take
place, students must have access to spaces appropriate for the purposes to which
they are being used. Among other things, this means that classes should be held
in rooms meant for instruction, not in makeshift spaces such as closets and
hallways; science classes should be held in laboratories designed to support
hands-on learning; and classrooms for the arts, the trades, and technology
should be equally appropriately equipped. Schools should be able to provide
quiet and safe places for individual testing and private counseling, as well as
suitable common areas such as libraries, gyms, and playgrounds. School
facilities should be properly maintained and functional, and all areas should be
accessible to people with disabilities.
All too often such space configurations are not recognized as fundamental
educational necessities. However, if schools are to fulfill their education
mission, adequate spaces for learning must be provided. This is especially true
in urban areas, where students may not have access to a safe and orderly
environment outside school walls.
This digest is based on two reports. One, "Bursting at the Seams: Report of
the Citizens' Commission on Planning for Enrollment Growth," by Ricardo R.
Fernandez and P. Michael Timpane, Chairmen, is available from the Office of the
Chancellor, New York City Board of Education, 110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn,
NY 11201. The other, "A School System at Risk: A Study of the Consequences of
Overcrowding in New York City Public Schools," by Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz and
Lillian Marti, is available from the Institute for Urban and Minority Education,
Box 75, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. Both
publications are also contained in the ERIC microfiche collection.