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In battered Red Hook, teachers struggle to connect with families

City teachers were told to stay home from school this week until today because of damages and disruption wrought by Hurricane Sandy. But staff working in one of the city’s worst-hit areas showed up anyway.

A group of teachers and aides from P.S. 15 in Red Hook met on Wednesday, just a day after the storm ended, hoping to distribute supplies to residents from the nearby Red Hook Houses, a sprawling campus of public housing where many of the school’s students live.

“P.S. 15 has always kind of been a hub for the community and in the absence of that hub, we wanted to try and do something,” said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher who invited families via email to meet at the school on Wednesday afternoon.

Cavanagh bought $200 worth of supplies — water, food, batteries, and even som Halloween candy — at Costco that morning, and said her plan was to give it away at the school, which was also badly damaged from the storm that flooded the rest of the neighborhood on Monday night.

But few people showed up at the scheduled meeting time on Wednesday. Some families had likely evacuated, and Cavanagh said she knew of some co-workers and families who stayed put but weren’t able to receive calls or emails.

Cavanagh ended up giving some food and water to passersby outside of the housing project, including one P.S. 15 parent of three students.

Alys Lugo, a P.S. 15 paraprofessional who lives in the houses, took a gallon of water and tuna up with her. She said she was traumatized by scenes from the storm.

“I saw the water coming up, into the park and the streets,” said Lugo, who watched the storm’s surge quickly blanket surrounding blocks from her apartment in one of the tower’s top floors. “There was water everywhere.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters on Thursday that most schools would not get a complete picture of how their families were affected by the storm until Monday, when students are expected to return. But the efforts by P.S. 15 teachers was one example of where teachers showed a greater eagerness to reestablish communication while schools were closed.

“It’s a horrible feeling to be disconnected from the kids we see every day not knowing where they are or if they’re alright,” Cavanagh said. “Folks feel a sense of urgency to get reconnected with students and families.”

Cavanagh and her colleagues eventually drove their supplies to Red Hook Initiative, a community-based organization that had quickly became a central meeting place in the neighborhood for hot meals and volunteer coordination. Cavanagh said she saw many P.S. 15 families at the center and thought the donations would be better put to use there.

P.S. 15’s staff remained uncertain about where they would be reporting once classes resume on Monday. While they were at Red Hook Initiative on Wednesday, they learned Mayor Bloomberg had announced that they would be expected to show up for work on Friday to prepare for the challenging circumstances.

“Where are we supposed to go?” asked Marie Sirotniak, another P.S. 15 teacher.

Late Thursday evening, an answer was still not clear. P.S. 15’s principal instructed teachers to meet at the school’s network offices in Bay Ridge. Department of Education officials had promised to release alternate locations for teachers working in severely damaged schools by Thursday afternoon, but did not do so until nearly midnight. Teachers from P.S. 15 were instructed to report to South Shore High School, more than eight miles away in central Brooklyn.

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