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Staten Island schools affected by Sandy get high-profile visitors

After Hurricane Sandy devastated Staten Island, New Dorp High School sprang into action.

Under the leadership of Principal Deidre DeAngelis, the school turned into a command center for the area, hosting a school displaced by the storm, drumming up donations from alumni, and distributing food, clothing, and blankets to students and staff members who needed them.

On Thanksgiving, New Dorp hosted a dinner for 650 families. “Matt cooked until he couldn’t cook anymore,” DeAngelis said about the school’s culinary arts teacher, Matthew Hays.

“We were so appreciative that we got help when no one else was helping us,” said Amanda Delapena, the student body vice president whose home was heavily damaged.

“I thought the story of what this school has done needs to be told,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said during a visit to the school this morning. At his invitation, U.S. Secretary of Education also visited the school, along with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Ernest Logan, president of the principals union.

After leaving New Dorp, Duncan and Mulgrew toured a heavily damaged neighborhood, then rejoined Walcott to visit nearby P.S. 38, where 80 percent of students were displaced by the storm.

Dozens of New Dorp’s teachers, students, and staff members gathered in the school’s mock courtroom to share stories from the storm with the officials.

Students described being separated from their parents, seeing family members injured, and escaping their flooded homes by kayak. Staff members told of returning to their homes to find everything they owned destroyed, and in some cases, not yet being able to return home at all. Others said they had weathered the storm unscathed, then joined the effort to support members of the school community who had not been so lucky.

New Dorp has has more than 2,500 students, but for nearly a decade it has been arranged into mini-schools called Small Learning Communities, facilitating personal relationships between students and teachers. DeAngelis and others said the arrangement was key to the disaster response.

“If we weren’t where we are academically, instructionally, emotionally, we could have pulled this off so quickly,” she said.

Returning to the normal rhythms of the high school calendar has been a challenge, students and teachers said.

“SING really helped me get back into my daily life,” said Matt McComb, referring to a musical production that the school staged recently. “It was the thing I looked forward to, instead of going back home and seeing all the dead fish in your backyard.”

Huda Sami, a math teacher, told the officials that she and her family are still bouncing among hotels and using a ladder to access their beachfront home, whose stairs were swept away. Without power at home until recently, her eight-year-old son had been doing homework by the overhead light of the family car.

Thinking about her own students, Sami said she wondered how they would be prepared for Regents exams next month. “How is this going to happen?” she asked. “How am I going to judge them to give grades?”

“It was hard to absorb information the first couple of weeks, and teachers understood that,” said Christina Awada, a senior who had been in the middle of applying to colleges when her home was flooded. “We’re kind of getting back into the normal routine now.”

Duncan said after visiting P.S. 38 – where students were collecting presents collected by Toys for Tots and books donated by the UFT — that the academic performance of schools affected by the storm was not his top priority at the moment.

“This is not a time, quite frankly, when I’m focused on exams,” he said. “It about, how can we help kids — their physical, their emotional, their psychological needs?”

He said the U.S. Department of Education would provide grants for counseling services and was looking into subsidizing exam fees for students whose families now cannot pay them.

He also said that touring disaster-affected schools, as he has done in other parts of the country before, put other education issues into perspective. In particular, he said, the city’s teacher evaluation negotiations, which officials are under pressure to conclude within weeks, should be taken in context.

“If folks can be as thoughtful, as compassionate, as hardworking, as dedicated working through this kind of issue [of recovering from Sandy], I have every confidence they can work through frankly a much more minor — an important issue, but a much more minor issue,” Duncan said.