“Reducing the concentration of disadvantage is crucial… it is virtually impossible for any teacher and any school, no matter how good and dedicated they are, to provide effective instruction in the presence of a student population composed of 80% of students who have limited language skills, have experienced traumatic events and live in precarious living conditions…”
OECD analysts at the Directorate for Education and Skills, Francesca Borgonovi and Mario Piacentini
The borough of Queens in New York City is home to more than 2.3 million residents, representing more than 120 countries and speaking upwards of 138 languages.
This means that Queens has the distinction of being more ethnically diverse than any county in New York, any city in the US, and any urban area in the world.
Most foreign-born Queens residents are coming from China, Guyana, Ecuador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Columbia, Korea, Bangladesh, India, and Jamaica. But these are only the most prominent examples; people are flocking to Queens from pretty much all over the world: the Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, Poland, Peru, Pakistan, Italy, Russia, and El Salvador. World travelers come to visit Manhattan but they stay and make a life in Queens.
Queens is an ever-evolving project; it is the seamless knitting of a multicolored tapestry tying together distinct cultures and transforming them into shared communities.
The diverse population continues to steadily grow. Currently, foreign-born residents make up 48% of the population. More than half the people in Queens have a mother language other than English. Queens, so it seems, welcomes just about every kind of person. The borough found a place for the current Republican nominee for president; yes, even Donald Trump was born and raised in Queens. No other place is the image of an American global melting pot truer than in Queens, NY.
The constant influx of new energy creates a vibrant society of world-class cuisine, diversified economic development, complex music cultures, packed stadiums, and the busiest airspace in the country. Yet, despite all it promises foreign dreamers, the immigrant population remains largely underserved. This is often due to linguistic and cultural barriers. The level of limited English proficiency is almost a third of the Borough.
As of April 2014, there were recorded to be 54,667 homeless people in Queens. A heartbreaking 23,116 children sleep in a New York City municipal shelter each night.
The borough’s greatest attribute generates its main flaw; because of constant immigration more people are coming to Queens than are being accommodated. The overcrowding brought on by immigration allows for its most important and vulnerable residents, youth, to be largely overlooked.
The children of Queens are being packed to the brim in underserved, underfunded schools.
Currently, Queens’ School Districts are among the most overcrowded in the entire city.
New seats are desperately needed in Queens’ schools. Schools have reached a utilization rate as high as ~200% which means that some schools are filled to twice their capacity.
Unfortunately the process in which new seats are added are largely ineffective and often counterproductive. The New York City Department of Education’s method of filling newly constructed schools, a process called Grade Expansion, allows for only one grade to be brought in per year, every year until the school fills. This means that for a kindergarten through grade six elementary school it would take seven years to finally fill the school.
(Figures from 2014)
Years ago Transportable Classroom Units, commonly known as trailers, were implemented as a solution to overcrowding. The problem is that trailers only work as a very short term solution; they have a life span of only 10 years. Many trailers throughout Queens have been in use for much longer than they were originally intended for. Sometimes these trailers have no heat in the winter and many are in critical need of repair. The Department of Education has apportioned $480 million in the 2015-2019 Capital Plan which looks to permanently remove all trailers. But even after their removal the issue of capacity will persist.
Universal prekindergarten gives children in all communities better access to education and prepares them for success in kindergarten. And while everyone agrees that universal prekindergarten is necessary, there are concerns about space in the public school sites because overcrowding is already such a serious issue.
Children in Queens—for whom English is more often than not their second language—are being systematically limited from reaching their full potential. They cannot succeed so long as they continue to be underserved and packed in crowded classrooms, all but forgotten.
It’s easy to be cynical about the future of Queens. And yet, as a melding of many nations and a place where the far corners of the world can come together to build something greater than the sum of their parts, it’s as important and as worthwhile a project as America itself.
The success of Queens would be beacon of hope for the future of hyper-diverse communities. Our future is increasingly one of globalization, migration, and cultural cohabitation. If we’re to succeed in the task of building multi-ethnic communities where diversity lives in harmony and where every person has an equal opportunity for prosperity, Queens is where we’ll learn how to do it. It’s a laboratory for social progress. It’s our litmus test to determine if our institutions are fair and just enough to accommodate all the communities of the world.
If we cannot learn how to provide every child, regardless of background, a good education in Queens than the American dream remains just that: a dream.