November 6, 2012
Teachers from John Dewey High School reported for duty to Sheepshead Bay High School on Monday with a sinking feeling. Months after narrowly escaping closure, the school had struggled since September to settle on programs for its 1,900 students and, if that were not enough, its Gravesend building had caught on fire during Hurricane Sandy.
Now they thought students and staff would have spread out among three different school buildings, including Sheepshead Bay, for the foreseeable future.
“It could be, without a doubt, another nail in the coffin,” one teacher said about the planned relocation. “It’s a whirlwind to be told to go here or there.”
The school’s staff spent Monday deciding who would report where on Wednesday, and creating new schedules for their students. Then, late Monday evening, teachers got a phone call from the Department of Education with unexpected news: Dewey would be able to reopen right away after all.
Teachers said the phone call came as a welcome surprise, but some said they thought the location was the least of Dewey’s worries.
Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott cited Dewey as one of the most severely damaged schools in the wake of the hurricane. And teachers said they had received no hints that the school would be ready to reopen any time soon, even after Principal Kathleen Elvin stopped by the building to assess repair efforts on Monday morning and afternoon. But department officials said the School Construction Authority had been able to install a generator and get Dewey’s boiler to work, making the building safe for students and teachers.
The quick return was exactly what some teachers said they thought the school needed.
“We need to be a comfort buffer against what happened in the hurricane,” one teacher said outside of Sheepshead Bay on Monday. “Dewey is really family to a lot of kids, they want to see their teachers and the staff again. But I have a feeling that nothing will return to normal until we get back our building.”
But Dewey’s normal is far from ideal, several teachers said. They said Elvin and her administration have been so focused on instruction that some of the fundamentals of running a large high school have fallen by the wayside.
In the most glaring example, they said, scheduling woes had continued deep into the semester, with some students having received an eighth program revision within the last couple of weeks.
“It was incompetence beyond belief,” one teacher said about the administration’s efforts to program students.
Others said Elvin’s approach to the storm days reflected the same misplaced priorities. Even as teachers struggled without Internet or gas for their cars—one the most convenient modes of transportation in Southern Brooklyn, particularly after Sandy knocked out some subway lines — and families remained out of reach, Elvin instructed teachers to focus on aligning their lessons to new standards.
She “wanted us to do unit plans on the Common Core today, and I don’t see why because we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have any of our resources,” one teacher said in a phone interview on Monday evening.
Some schools used the Friday teacher workday to brainstorm ways to help students, families, and colleagues whose lives were disrupted by the storm. But Elvin emailed department chairs on Thursday morning, just 48 hours after the fire at Dewey, instructing them to make copies of a department-produced science lesson to share with their teachers. The email made no mention of the storm or the damage it wrecked on Dewey.
“If we still have an Election Day PD, it can continue the work on Common Core,” Elvin wrote in the email, which GothamSchools obtained. “We also need to review passing rates with teachers who have failing rates over 15% to see how we can support them and their students.”
At least one assistant principal hedged against the instructions when passing them on to the teachers in his department. “I know that many of you have been going through a lot and may find it difficult to get to school tomorrow,” the assistant principal wrote. “Please put safety first and if you can get to work that would be great.”
But even though they have found Elvin’s laser-like focus on instruction too narrow throughout the year and disconcerting in the last week, teachers said they understood it. She has Dewey’s latest progress report grade in hand, but she hasn’t shared it with teachers, which some cited as a bad sign.
Plus, the school had been scheduled for a Department of Education quality review last week. The evaluation, which had been delayed from last year when the department was planning to close the school, will look at how well the staff works together in moving toward academic progress.
The teacher who spoke to us by phone said, “[Elvin] told us she thinks the DOE is still going to come after us and we want to be ready.”
He said he expects Dewey to land on the city’s list of high schools up for closure this year unless it posts a surprisingly high progress report grade.
“We are like an emotional rollercoaster,” he added. “For the students and the staff, it’s like we don’t know what to do anymore.”
This morning, teachers said they were pleased to find the building in near-perfect condition when they arrived for a full day of professional development.
“The building looks great, the janitorial staff has been working around the clock to get things ready,” one wrote in a message. But the teacher added that the status quo will take yet more time to return. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty and confusion, but we’re headed in the right direction!”