Six months after Sandy, a Rockaway school is still struggling

Channel View’s college applications celebration was “one of the best days” for the school since Hurricane Sandy, a student said. The school is still recovering from the storm.

When a television news crew approached the Channel View School for Research a couple of months ago and asked to do a glowing report on the school’s success, the staff was incredulous.

“They wanted to do a story about thriving schools,” said Craig Dorsi, a history teacher and the school’s union chapter leader. “We were like, are you freaking crazy? We’re not thriving. The reality is that the world is still upside down.”

A year ago, the school’s impressive graduation, attendance, and college and career readiness rates all made Channel View worth visiting. But that was before Hurricane Sandy, which tore through New York City six months ago this week.

In the storm’s aftermath, Channel View was displaced from its building for two months and has struggled to recover. Teachers’ and students’ homes were destroyed, parents lost their jobs, and ongoing work to rebuild the Rockaway Peninsula has made for a bleak backdrop in which to go to school.

Even four months after the school returned to its building, students and staff say that something is missing. In interviews, they struggled to identify what they had lost.

“It’s something that we can’t grasp, what the issue is,” said Jennifer Walter, the school’s guidance counselor. “But you can feel it.”

“Something got a little thrown off, you know?” said Justin Zemser, a senior who will attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., next year. “I don’t really know how to explain it.”

Other people in the school say the loss is easier to pinpoint. Trains are still down on the peninsula, so packed buses make it hard to get anywhere on time. Attendance is down from 95 percent to 88 percent, and Dorsi estimated that lateness is way up, too.

The school also eased up on a key feature of its school culture, the uniform policy, as students continue struggle with their personal lives. Dorsi said he lost track of how many parents lost their jobs as a result of the storm and that many families continue to live in faraway neighborhoods.

“We built a successful school,” said Dorsi. “It only took us nine years. But it’s not  something that you can just piece back together.”

When Sandy made landfall in New York City Oct. 28, it brought a 14-foot tidal surge that crashed into the vulnerable lowlands of the city coasts. The storm affected life in every corner of the city, shutting down subways and causing power outages even in neighborhoods that were not flooded.

It severely affected schools as well. The school system closed for a week, but dozens of buildings were closed for longer because of flooding and structural damage. In all, 50 school buildings were “severely damaged,” about 300 buses were destroyed, and 75,000 students were displaced.

Among the last schools to open were the four schools — among them Channel View – on the Beach Channel Campus, one of two large high school buildings located on the Rockaway peninsula, a particularly hard-hit area.

A boiler burst in the building’s basement, causing potential contamination to the air quality and required a lengthy cleanup.

At its temporary space on the Franklin K. Lane Campus, the school was anxious to return to its home. Because of space issues, students were each assigned to a single room while their teachers rotated from room to room. Zemser said teachers mainly reviewed material in class because so many students were absent and the teachers did not want to leave anyone behind.

They tried to restore some semblance of normalcy to their routine and maintain a strong culture, which people at the school said was perhaps its strongest quality. The highlight was a pep rally the school had for seniors shipping off their college applications.

“That was one of the best days,” Zemser said.

Channel View's sports facilities were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Nike is in talks to repair the field, according to people at the school.
Channel View’s sports facilities were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Nike is in talks to repair the field, according to people at the school.

When they returned, there was a sense that things were getting back to normal.

“It was much more comforting to be on our property, use our own textbooks,” Walter said. “Everybody felt more at home, at least.”

But Walter, a well known and popular presence at the school, said it didn’t take long to notice that things weren’t right. Students were getting into trouble more, falling behind on school, and coming in late. It all added up, she said.

“These children have post traumatic stress,” she said.

Channel View’s principal did not respond to requests for comment. But Walter and Dorsi said the school has received lots of support from the Department of Education, which has been lauded for its response to the storm.

“I’m surprised in a very happy way with the response of the DOE,” Dorsi said.

Walter said the department assigned two counselors from “Project Hope” to the school to work every day with students, although she said the new faces have struggled to connect on deeply personal issues.

The school has gotten help in other ways. The College Board has agreed to delay administration of its Advanced Placement exams by three weeks to make up for the instructional time Channel View lost earlier in the year, as it did at other schools disrupted by the storm. CUNY also waived college application fees for dozens of students.

And Nike is in talks with the department to rebuild the school’s track and repair its football field after helicopters from the National Guard and other government agencies used the facility as a landing pad during the storm’s clean up.

But Dorsi said money isn’t what makes a school whole again. “You can’t just plop down resources and expect that culture to be rebuilt.”

He repeated himself. “It’s the culture that was lost.”

Now, Channel View’s middle school students are taking state tests, and Dorsi said everyone at the school is concerned about how their scores will affect the school. Dorsi said the teachers union has asked the city to ease its accountability standards for this year at schools severely disrupted by Sandy, perhaps by not comparing students’ scores this year to their scores last year in the Department of Education’s annual progress report, but had not yet received a response.

“We are really struggling academically,” Walter said. “And now we’re feeling the brunt of it.”

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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.