Relieving overcrowding in New York City’s schools “is going to require a change of mindset — it’s not just about building new schools, it’s also about reconfiguring existing schools,” said Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott at today’s City Council hearing on school capacity and utilization.

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, testifying with Walcott on behalf of the Department of Education, said that the DOE has made significant progress towards creating 63,000 new school seats, as outlined in the current capital plan; so far, 55,000 seats have been created or are in progress. Grimm and Walcott stressed that while capital investment is one strategy the DOE uses to reduce overcrowding, equally important are using available space more strategically and changing enrollment policies to ease pressure on the most in-demand programs and schools.

“We have room in the system… The challenge is making sure we have room in the right places,” Walcott said, stating that the overall school utilization rate in the city is 84.5%. The new capital plan, he said, will look not just at city or district level enrollment statistics, but also at individual neighborhoods where “pockets of overcrowding” exist — or pockets of underutilized space. He and Grimm warned that resolving overcrowding on a neighborhood basis might require communities to make tough choices, such as moving one program or school from a crowded building into an underutilized one, or changing zone boundaries, as has been proposed for District 3. The grade configuration of some schools may also have to change, by combining elementary and middle schools or middle and high schools to create mixed-level buildings.

Some schools are “victims of their own success,” said Grimm, noting that parents understandably want to send their children to the best programs. Part of the solution must be to expand the number of excellent schools, she said, adding that the city will also look at adjusting enrollment policies.

While the DOE’s testimony emphasized solving localized overcrowding problems, others at the hearing questioned the methodology underlying their school capacity and utilization estimates. Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters said that while there is “pocket overcrowding,” there is also overcrowding across the whole system.

Haimson and sociologist Emily Horowitz of St. Francis College surveyed principals and found that nearly half of those who responded believed the city’s estimates of their buildings’ utilization were incorrect. Some principals also reported that they were forced to convert dedicated “cluster” spaces for art, music, science labs, and libraries into regular classrooms, Horowitz testified. She called for adjustments to the city’s formula for determining school capacity in order to improve school safety, increase student access to libraries, gyms, and auditoriums, and reclaim cluster classrooms for their original uses.

This hearing was the first of two to address the overcrowding issue; the second will focus on the process of identifying and acquiring space for additional seats, said City Council Education Committee chair Robert Jackson.