By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Overcrowding at a Miami-Dade elementary and middle school is so severe, students are crammed into classrooms and rats roam the cafeteria grounds, parents and teachers say.
Why? School district officials are violating a state constitutional amendment limiting the number of children per class.
Norman S. Edelcup Sunny Isles Beach K-8 Center is operating at 31 percent over capacity, and more new students are piling in midway through the school year, according to parents and teachers interviewed by Florida Bulldog. They accuse Miami-Dade County Public Schools regional administrators of failing to enforce district policy that requires students to live in the neighborhood where a school is located, while ignoring their pleas to follow state law that mandates a maximum of 18 students per classroom.
The current student headcount is 2,317 while the school is supposed to have only 1,769 kids, according to Miami-Dade County Public Schools data as of Dec. 19, 2022. Another two dozen students enrolled in January.
“Norman Edelcup is dealing with a perfect storm of an education disaster,” said Johana Rabinovich, the mother of two Norman Edelcup students. “We are the number one overcrowded K-8 center in Miami-Dade while dealing with a shortage of teachers and custodians.”
“To call it chaos is kind,” added Norman Edelcup teacher Elizabeth Perdomo. “I currently have 31 kids in my class. And we keep getting more and more students enrolled. Teachers can’t give the children the attention they deserve because we have so many students.”
In an email response to Florida Bulldog questions, Miami-Dade Public Schools spokeswoman Ana Rhodes confirmed that Norman Edelcup is overcrowded, but disputed the complaints that the school district is not addressing the problem and that the K-8 center’s staff is overwhelmed.
“While class size is high in certain sections, the teachers are managing their learning environment and the students are safe,” Rhodes said. “Sunny Isles K-8 has been identified as a priority school by the Office of Human Capital as it pertains to the staffing and hiring of instructional staff. As additional teachers are hired, new sections are created, and class size is reduced. This is a priority at this time.”
In 2002, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that limited the maximum number of students in core classes such as math, English and science. For students in kindergarten through third grade, the cap is 18 students. For grades four through eight, the cap size is 22 students, and for grades nine through 12, the cap size is 25 students. The law went into effect in the 2010-2011 school year.
Since then, Miami-Dade Public Schools has had a hard time following the state law at Norman Edelcup, which opened in 2008. The K-8 center has been operating at overcapacity except for its first two years of existence. The school’s class sizes regularly exceed the state-mandated caps. And the current school year is on pace to beat 2021-2022’s 127 percent capacity rate, according to Miami-Dade Public Schools data.
In the five months ending in January, Norman Edelcup has experienced 262 new student registrations, including 24 last month, the data shows. Close to half of the new students hail from Russia and Ukraine, two Eastern European countries locked in a devastating war since the former invaded the latter about a year ago. The school has also accepted nine new students from Belarus, a Russian military ally that is bordering Ukraine.
“Miami-Dade County Public Schools has a longstanding history of welcoming all students to our school district,” Rhodes, the district spokeswoman, said. “We have recently been experiencing an influx of immigrant students across the district.”
According to the school district’s data, 2,227 students at Norman Edelcup reside in Sunny Isles Beach. That means roughly 10 percent of the city’s population of 22,342 people are children spending five days a week at the K-8 center.
During a Jan. 19 parents’ meeting at Norman Edelcup with the school district’s advisory boundary committee, Andreas Vlahos displayed graphs that illustrated how dramatic the overcrowding at his childrens’ school has gotten. Vlahos, who has a son in kindergarten and a daughter in the third grade, compiled the graphs using enrollment data that is publicly available on Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ website.
“It is remarkable how much overcapacity we are compared to other schools,” Vlahos told Florida Bulldog. “It is totally unacceptable.”
One of Vlahos’s graphs shows that six out of 58 Miami-Dade K-8 centers are at overcapacity, and Norman Edelcup takes the top spot by a wide margin. Winston Park K-8 Center in unincorporated Southwest Miami-Dade, the second most overcrowded one, is operating at about 10 percent over capacity, the graph shows.
A LACK OF RESIDENCY ENFORCEMENT
Vlahos, Rabinovich and Perdomo allege that top bureaucrats in the school district’s north region, which oversees Norman Edelcup, have blocked the K-8 center’s administrators from conducting address verifications, and won’t crack down on parents who live outside the city providing fraudulent documentation as proof of residence.
As part of its residency requirement policy, Miami-Dade Public Schools warns parents that they could possibly face a criminal misdemeanor charge if they knowingly make “a false statement in writing with the intent to mislead a public servant in the performance of his or her official duty.”
“We know a very large proportion of enrolled students do not live in Sunny Isles Beach,” Vlahos said. “A large number of parents either falsify addresses or at one point lived here, but have since moved and still have their kids at the school.”
Sunny Isles Beach Commissioner Fabiola Stuyvesant, whose son is a Norman Edelcup eighth- grader, told Florida Bulldog that the school district is ignoring a 2016 interlocal agreement with the city to conduct address verifications of all the K-8 center’s students. A year later, Sunny Isles Beach City Commission passed a resolution giving a $76,725 grant to the school district for that purpose.
Sunny Isles Beach officials wanted the school district to provide a monthly report with the number of students who are verified as actually living in the city and the number of those who were determined to live outside the boundary, according to a city memo. The city also wanted the school district to relocate those students living outside the boundary to their proper schools.
Stuyvesant believes the school district is not doing any address verification because no one from Miami-Dade Public Schools has verified where she lives for more than a decade, she said. Her daughter, who is now a high school senior, also attended Norman Edelcup between 2011 and 2019. “We have never gotten any reports,” Stuyvesant said. “There is no accountability.”
ADDRESS VERIFICATION HALTED
For instance, in May 2021, Stuyvesant provided north region superintendent Verena Cabrera and her staff with property tax bills showing that two sets of parents who have a total of five children attending Norman Edelcup do not reside in Sunny Isles Beach.The north region allowed those five students to remain at Norman Edelcup, Stuyvesant said. (Cabrera did not respond to a Florida Bulldog phone message seeking comment.)
Perdomo, who teaches a fifth-grade English language class to immigrant students, said Norman Edelcup Principal Melissa Mesa had prepared stacks of address verification letters about two months ago that teachers were supposed to hand out to students suspected of not living in Sunny Isles Beach.
“Somehow the district found out and they stopped her,” Perdomo said. “Our principal was not able to verify the students who live outside the boundary that we know of.”
School district spokeswoman Rhodes asserted that it has no record of Stuyvesant providing north region staff with her documentation about the parents not residing in Sunny Isles Beach.
“It is the responsibility of the parents to provide proper documentation to verify their residence,” Rhodes said. “Currently, there is no agreement as it pertains to address verification.”
OVERCROWDING LEADS TO RAT INFESTATION
As the student population mushroomed at Norman Edelcup, the school district has failed to provide a safe and healthy environment because there is not enough custodial and maintenance personnel for the K-8 center’s upkeep, the parents alleged.
“The rat infestation is so bad that they are running outside the cafeteria grounds during the day,” said Rabinovich, who is also a former Sunny Isles Beach city commissioner. “The school district’s response is that Norman Edelcup is by the water, so it’s normal to see rats.”
Perdomo echoed Rabinovich’s complaint about the rats, noting that she’s seen rodents in the patio outside the cafeteria because there is an extra amount of discarded food that doesn’t get cleaned up. “The school district needs to get a handle on the situation,” Perdomo said. “They need to have severe pest control to get rid of them.”
Rhodes told Florida Bulldog that the rat problem was taken care of. “All health and sanitation protocols have been followed,” she said. “There is no rat infestation at the school.”
While Rhodes downplayed the overcrowding and other problems at Norman Edelcup, the elected official whose district includes the K-8 center said that big changes are taking place to reduce the number of students at the school.
On Feb. 3, Principal Mesa notified her entire staff, including teachers, that next week the school and the north region will begin requesting that all parents submit two documents showing proof of residence, according to an email Mesa sent out.
“Now that this issue has come to a head, we are working to ensure conditions at Norman Edelcup are up to par,” said Miami-Dade Public Schools Board member Lucia Baez-Geller. “I have been guaranteed that district staff are putting together all the requested actions by the parents, including address verification, stricter enrollment rules and greater oversight on the process.”