Field test

For storm-swept Rockaway football team, a brief bright moment

Coach Victor Nazario had no shortage of material to draw on as he launched into a pep talk for the Beach Channel Campus Dolphins before their playoff football game on Saturday.

Less than two weeks before, the Rockaway Peninsula — home to Beach Channel and many of its students — had borne the full force of Hurricane Sandy. Since the storm, members of the football team, like so many others, had been camped out in cold, dark apartments or bouncing among family, friends, and hotels elsewhere — anywhere with power and heat and access to food.

On Thursday, Nazario rushed to organize a practice to prepare for the Saturday matchup, but he was not sure if enough players would show up. A day earlier, just 15 percent of Beach Channel students made it to the school’s first day in a new location.

Now, just before kickoff, Nazario looked around the Port Richmond High School cafeteria, the team’s makeshift locker room, and saw that he had enough players to field a team. His voice cracked with emotion almost as soon as he opened his mouth.

“Needless to say, the last two weeks have really tested our character and our resilience and, in my opinion, you guys passed in flying colors,” Nazario said.

Before heading out onto the field, Nazario reminded the players to relish their time on the field.

“We handle our business,” he said. “And then we go home to deal with the dark.”

Coaches Victor Nazario (right) and John Coscia hug senior co-captains Justin Zemser and Breland Archbold after their loss Saturday.

Darkness has been a resolute companion after sunset for the tens of thousands of Rockaway residents still without power two weeks after the storm. Cell phone service on the peninsula remains spotty, basic needs are in short supply, and traffic is clogged with vehicles from the National Guard and other organizations brought in to assist in recovery.

For the players, talk of “the darkness” is one part communal joke, one part shorthand to describe their new normal.

Seniors Marcus Wilcox, a co-captain, and Nkoze Stewart said the kitchen has become the most popular room in their apartments — not for what food gets cooked, but because huddling around an open stove is the only way to stay warm.

Junior running back Chris Reed and his family decided to stay in their 10th-floor apartment because his grandmother, who lives four floors above, didn’t want to evacuate. Reed said he’s spent the last two weeks shuttling supplies up and down dozens of flights of stairs for his family.

“At least you’re staying in shape,” Nazario told Reed by way of consolation.

“How can a carpet be cold?” said Michael Stanley, a junior wide receiver. Stanley had been been staying in East New York but slept on his cousin’s floor Friday night back on the peninsula so he could make the early morning team bus to Staten Island. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Stanley is one of several Beach Channel plays to have fled the remote, 11-mile-long Rockaway peninsula entirely. Senior co-captain Justin Zemser, a wide receiver, headed to Long Island after a gas leak in his apartment building forced all of the residents out. Star defensive lineman and University of Connecticut-bound Folorunso Fatukasi is living in a Brooklyn motel room with his parents and two brothers. Senior left tackle Roger Arrington evacuated more than 100 miles away upstate.

Of course, if Sandy never struck, the 12th seeded Dolphins (5-3) still would have been steep underdogs against the fifth-seeded Port Richmond Red Raiders (6-2). Port Richmond recruits from a student body of more than 2,100, but because the city is in the process of closing Beach Channel, its student body has shrunk to just 400. New schools in the building, whose students are also eligible for the team, add only 1,200 more potential recruits.

Still, the storm added to the odds against the Dolphins.

Nazario found out on Tuesday that the Public Schools Athletic League, which oversees sports in the city’s public school system, intended to move forward with the playoffs with or without the Dolphins.

Nazario had a choice to make: forfeit or round up players he hadn’t seen in weeks and ask them to take a break from their families to play the game.

But after he spoke with Zemser, Wilcox, and Breland Archbold, his senior co-captains, the decision became clear: The Dolphins would not cede the game to Sandy.

“We told [the coaches] that we’d get the players if they get us the equipment,” Wilcox said.

But the Dolphins still didn’t have a practice field. The field at Beach Channel campus was turned into a landing pad for emergency helicopters and Nazario said he cringed when he first saw what they’ve done to his 50-yard line. On Thursday and Friday, the team practiced at nearby Far Rockaway High School, which is located further in land.

On Saturday, 25 Beach Channel players suited up to take on about 40 Red Raiders in a contest that Nazario compared to the battle between David and Goliath.

“Everything that you’ve endured, it’s like ridiculous that you guys even thought about playing this football game,” Nazario said in his speech. He added, “Everything that we’ve been through for the last two weeks, winning this football game should actually be easy.”

In the Hollywood version of the playoff game, Nazario’s speech would have foreshadowed a come-from-behind victory over both Port Richmond and tragedy. But in real life, the Red Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back.

Beach Channel gained momentum briefly in the second quarter. Archbold, the team’s star quarterback, ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown to make the score 14-6. He had the Dolphins driving again when Port Richmond intercepted a bobbled pass and returned it  for a touchdown. The final score was 38-6, sending the Red Raiders on to the next round of the playoffs.

For Beach Channel, the loss marked the end of the season. After the game, Nazario cried some more, but this time he had company. As he gathered his team for a final sendoff, he thanked his players again for overcoming steep odds even to step on to the field.

Fatukasi told his teammates to stop crying, to be proud of their performance. Then he was wiping tears from his own eyes [VIDEO].

Spirits were higher back in the cafeteria. The players ate pizza — courtesy of Port Richmond — and basked in the last few minutes of fluorescent light and radiated heat.

“I wouldn’t have been able to live with that feeling of ‘what if?’” said Zemser, the senior. “At least now I know we had a shot at it.”

“Now we gotta go fix this town up,” he added.

After the game: “No more crying…We’re leaving this field with respect.”

 

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.