By Faaria Kherani
A kindergarten in Sunset Park has capped its waitlist amid the rapidly growing number of Chinese immigrant families vying for spots in the school. Melody Zhao, parent coordinator for PS 105, was keeping track of the waitlist across ten pages of a yellow notepad earlier this year, all the while telling parents not to worry. But now she must turn families down altogether.
PS 105 had Brooklyn’s longest kindergarten waitlist of 76 students when pre-registration took place in April, in large part due to the Asian immigrant population increase. Ninety-percent of children enrolled at PS 105 are Asian American, according to principal Johanna Castronovo. The school has responded to massive Chinese immigration to Sunset Park and now more than half of the staff is Chinese-speaking. But space is still a problem.
Although the school increased its kindergarten enrollment from 1,710 last year to 1,760 this September, there were 32 children per class and the waitlist was over fifty children long when Castronovo requested a cap from the Department of Education (DOE).
Sunset Park is home to New York’s fastest growing Chinatown, where the Asian population has grown from about 3,000 in 1980 to over 35,000 in 2010, according to the Brooklyn Chinese American Association. The city is having difficulty keeping up with the rapidly increasing immigrant population because, although the DOE opened four new schools in the area, the city is lacking resources to cater to Asian-specific, ESL schooling demands.
According to Castronovo, the DOE ranks children for enrollment based on zoning and siblings. Students who live in the PS 105 zone have first priority, then students who already have siblings at the school, then those who do not live in the zone but do have siblings enrolled, and finally those who live outside the zone and have no sibling affiliation.
Because the Chinese population has been growing faster than the schools can handle, a lottery system is now also being used to determine enrollment. This means that even children who have siblings enrolled or who live in PS 105’s school zone are being relegated to the waitlist.
Lisa Wang, whose son attended PS 105 and is now at Stuyvessant High School and whose daughter is in grade 5 at PS 105, is relieved to be a PS 105 parent. “Parents applying come in here with four or five addresses,” Lisa says. “When they are asked: ‘where do you live?’ they have to actually look down and read off an address in the zone. It’s so obvious what they are doing. How can you not know where you live?”
DOE spokesperson Jack Zarin-Rosenfeld believes the issue facing PS 105 and new immigrant families cannot be remedied simply by building more schools. He cites PS 87 on the Upper West Side, where creating more space did little to satisfy growing demand from parents. According to Zarin-Rosenfeld, PS 87 is one of the most popular elementary schools in the city. Its waitlist hit 100 children in the spring, so the DOE opened a new school literally across the street from PS 87. It took a long time to fill the new school, even though it provided very similar services to PS 87.
“Ultimately it’s the great teachers and great principal that make the difference. We could open a brand new pristine building across the street from one of the most popular schools, and everyone will want the old one,” says Zarin-Rosenfeld.
An additional concern for Chinese parents in Sunset Park is having their child placed in a non-bilingual school. Zarin-Rosenfeld cannot recall a mechanism that fulfills language or culture requests for parents whose children are on a waitlist. For this reason, many Chinese parents feel that there is more at stake than just an education. They may be losing an entire educational culture for their child.
Castronovo is doing everything in her power to accommodate all of the eager parents who want their children in PS 105. “I’ve opened up as many rooms as I can, but I just cannot expand the walls,” she says.
And when a child does not get in? “Of course they’re disappointed,” Castronovo says. “One woman, when her child got in, said, ‘Oh! This is better than winning the lottery!’”