Half Empty Classrooms

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Seventeen-year-olds Nicole Marquez and Sirmaira Suarez spent a recent gym class watching boys play basketball and noting the World Trade Center attacks’ biggest effect on their East Harlem high school: “It’s like a ghost town here,” says Marquez. In early October, classes usually crowded with 25 students packed 10 to 15 at most, Suarez says. “Lots of people see planes outside and they get freaked, so they stay home.”

While school officials contend high school attendance is at normal levels, around 74 percent, some parents and advocates aren’t so sure. A few weeks after September 11, community groups and parent associations say they’re seeing a jump in the number of empty desks in high school classrooms. Noting that the city’s attendance reporting system is not stellar–Governor Pataki’s 1999 Moreland Commission found that at least 140,000 students were improperly marked as present in just one year–advocates are insisting there’s a greater need than ever to get kids back to school.

When Lou Zuckman, director of the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network, visited several of the South Bronx and East Harlem schools in which his group runs counseling and tutoring programs in late September, he found the dearth of students “painfully obvious. Usually the halls are bedlam,” he says.

Some parent associations admit their members are still keeping kids home from school. “They say, ‘I’m worried my children will be on the train and they’ll unleash some biological agents,’” says Ernest Clayton, president of the United Parents Associations.

School principals and educators note that resources to get kids back to the classroom are tight. In early September, Schools Chancellor Harold Levy announced more than $190 million in cuts to the Board of Education’s budget, most as a result of the “bare-bones” state budget the legislature approved in July. As a result, schools have had to slash arts, sports and after-school programs as well as guidance counseling.

“These programs are really fundamental,” says Jill Chaifetz, executive director of the watchdog group Advocates for Children. “After the September 11 tragedy, our kids need these resources,” particularly those who think school is a waste of time anyway.

Nineteen-year-old senior Kevin Edwards agrees. “A lot of guys are going, like, ‘What’s the point of coming?”