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Emotions still raw as Regents visit Sandy-affected city schools

Members of the state Board of Regents took a break from their cloistered policy discussions today to hear directly from families who were heavily affected by Superstorm Sandy last year.

“Every time it rains, like last week, the first words my son asks me” is if the house will flood, said Maryrose Spiteri. “He panics.”

Spiteri was part of a small group of parents and teachers from P.S. 38 on Staten Island who met in the school’s library this morning with three Regents: Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Buffalo’s Robert Bennett, and Staten Island’s Christine Cea. Principal Everlidys Robles estimated that 85 percent of her families “were devastated” by the storm and that 40 students — about 12 percent — had not returned.

The parents sat in chairs in a compact circle, where behind them a slideshow of events during the school’s recovery, which included visits from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Mets shortstop David Wright, was projected onto a wall. On a table nearby was newspaper clippings about the damage to Staten Island and binders of assignments from students who wrote about the experiences.

One kindergartner, in a persuasive writing assignment, called on Mayor Bloomberg to build more houses for people who lost their homes. Another student wrote about getting rescued from his home. “In the morning a boat came and took us to the shelter,” he wrote.

Tisch asked the parents to share their personal experiences as well and, in a series of emotional testimonies, they did so. One parent, Kim Fish, said her family was split up for 10 hours during and after the storm.

Another mother, Diane Cruz, said she left her children, including a son who has autism, at home with a relative while running an errand for supplies at a Duane Reade as the storm got underway. She wouldn’t see them again until the next day.

“For 13 hours, I didn’t know if my kids made it out alive,” Cruz said. In a moment of levity, she recalled how they were reunited. “All of a sudden, I see my kids go by in a boat,” she said.

Many of the parents said that where other first responders had failed to help them, P.S. 38 and its staff provided assistance. The school was operating again on Nov. 2, and teachers had organized food pantries and toy drives to support the families who had lost everything. Cruz, who was displaced and lived in New Jersey after the storm, said that she heard from neighbors that teachers knocked on her front door to check on the family.

“We didn’t get help from anyone else,” Cruz said.

Along with other state education officials, Tisch initially visited schools shortly after the storm struck. She said today that she saw impressive improvement but added that the parents’ emotional recollections highlighted the daily challenges that still exist.

“For the people living in it day-to-day, I think at some point you get very frustrated with the pace of the progress,” Tisch said. “I think the emotion is just that it was a real lifetime event for real families in real time and they’re still living in it.”

Tisch also put teachers — and students — on the spot to describe their experiences with last month’s state tests. The Regents have drawn criticism for allowing state tests to be tied to new standards known as the Common Core soon after the state adopted the standards. But Tisch said she had also heard encouraging responses to her own questions about the year’s tests.

“I think it is extraordinary when you talk to the teachers and the children to see that they felt prepared and ready for the task, which is not to say that they will have the highest scores,” Tisch said. “But it is to say that they implementation of Common Core — no matter the circumstance, and this was a very complicated circumstance — is something that is on the mind of educators and school systems throughout the state.”

While Tisch was on Staten Island, State Education Commissioner John King toured two Sandy-affected school buildings in Queens, including the Channel View campus. The group reconvened this afternoon for an abbreviated policy meeting and a forum on immigration and education, as part of a push this week for legislative relief for students who were brought to the country illegally as children.

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