Remembering Z

Victim in train derailment leaves lasting legacy at Queens high school

PHOTO: Photo courtesy of NYC Outward Bound Schools
Justin Zemser speaks to students at a College March while in high school.

For the two years after his graduation, teachers, counselors, and teammates were still talking about the kid they called “Z.”

Justin Zemser was the valedictorian of Channel View High School for Research’s class of 2013, a student who had become renowned for helping his neighborhood in the Rockaways recover from Superstorm Sandy. After finishing his sophomore year at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he was scheduled to return to Channel View to speak at a mentorship retreat for students this week.

He died Tuesday night aboard the Amtrak train that derailed on its way to New York from Washington, D.C., an event that has had an outsize impact on the city’s education world, having also taken the life of former CUNY Prep principal Derrick Griffith. News of Zemser’s death shook the Rockaway community where he grew up, where those who knew him say he seemed destined to do great things.

“Z was more than a friend,” said Breland Archbold, who knew Zemser since they were first-grade classmates. “He was like a brother.”

Zemser was Channel View’s valedictorian, captain of its football team, and its student body president. But Jennifer Walter, Zemser’s guidance counselor, said it wasn’t until she began helping Zemser put together his college applications that she realized the extent of his work in the community, which included stints with the Special Olympics and in the office of his city councilman, Eric Ulrich.

“He displayed honor, discipline, dedication,” said Victor Nazario, Zemser’s former coach. “The list goes on and on. I could talk forever about all the positive qualities that that young man possessed.”

Breland Archbold, left, Beach Channel coach Victor Nazario and Justin Zemser, right, in 2012 after the final game of the season.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Breland Archbold, left, Beach Channel coach Victor Nazario and Justin Zemser, right, in 2012 after the final game of the season.

White and Jewish, Zemser fit in seamlessly at a school where more than 80 percent of students were black and Latino, friends said. Channel View opened in 2004, one of the first small high schools opened to replace larger underperforming high schools under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A non-selective school that draws primarily from the surrounding Rockaway neighborhoods and several low-income housing developments, Channel View last year had a 97 percent four-year graduation rate, and its graduates are better prepared for college than the average city student, according to the school-review website Insideschools.

But Channel View has its share of challenges. It shares the Beach Channel Campus with three other schools, and students walk through metal detectors to enter. Parts of the isolated Rockaway community struggle with poverty, and residents and elected officials have long complained that the community’s issues get too little attention from those in City Hall, more than an hour away by train.

Growing up in Rockaway, Archbold said, “The biggest thing is who you hang out with, and how your goals and views get shaped by that.” Zemser, he said, “was always the driving force, the motivator of the group always bringing out the best in me.”

Rockaway faced even bigger challenges in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Rockaway Peninsula. Students from Channel View were shipped miles away to a new school, electricity was down for weeks, and roads were strewn with abandoned cars that had been carried by the ocean’s massive swells.

Walter, Zemser’s guidance counselor whose home was severely flooded from the storm, recalled receiving regular check-in texts from the senior asking how her family was doing and if he could do anything. Through texts and Facebook messages, Zemser also managed to rally his teammates to reunite for an emotional playoff football game, the last of his high school career.

The players were exhausted from two weeks of staving off the cold at night and shuttling up and down stairways in powerless housing projects and shoveling out their and others’ flooded homes. The Beach Channel Dolphins never really stood a chance. But the players seemed happy just to be thinking about something else for a few hours.

“He was a big part of the reason we were even able to play the game,” Nazario said. (Zemser later joined me to talk about the game and his experience on CUNY’s Brian Lehrer news program.)

Zemser’s parents requested privacy in a statement on a Facebook page set up to remember their son, who they described as “community-minded.”

Zemser’s transition to college was unsurprisingly seamless, his friends and teacher said. He was an honors student and vice president of the Jewish Midshipmen’s Club. He hosted 60 Special Olympics athletes for a tour of the campus and football game. And Archbold said he was already fixating on his next great challenge: becoming a Navy SEAL.

Speaking after the football game more than two years ago, Zemser reflected on why he went through so much effort to field a team despite the long odds.

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

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”