November 6, 2012
Principal Rochel Brown hadn’t slept much since Friday, when she and her teachers began assessing the toll Hurricane Sandy took on the Red Hook Neighborhood School’s community.
The news she received then was grim: Several teachers lost their homes and cars in the storm, which was particularly devastating to Staten Island and Brooklyn’s waterfront neighborhoods, where many teachers from her school live. And many more families were unreachable because of power outages in the area.
To top it off, she and Shahara Jackson, principal of the Summit Academy Charter School, which shares the Huntington Avenue school building with the Neighborhood School, learned they would need to make room for another school—P.S. 15, a Red Hook school so damaged by the storm that it cannot reopen yet—by Wednesday, when its students and teachers will be temporarily relocated.
Brown told reporters this afternoon that she is managing “as smoothly as possible,” given the circumstances. The other principals nodded in agreement.
“Once we went through the planning phase, we met as a building council and determined where [P.S. 15's] students are going to be going and which clasrooms we would need to make readily available in a very short turnaround time,” Brown said. “We want them to feel as ‘normal’ as they can possibly feel, entering a new building in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.”
To make it work, Brown said she has adjusted everyone’s schedules and temporarily forfeited the use of speciality classrooms like art and music. Instead of sending students from classroom to classroom for their non-core subjects, on Wednesday the teachers will travel between classrooms to hold lessons. Some classes may also be consolidated, meaning class size will temporarily double.
Brown and Jackson said the lost week of classes will be tough to recover from, but they have been trudging forward.
“Our teachers were able to post assignments to Jupiter Grades for our scholars to access so they could have a seamless transition once they return,” said Jackson, whose students are in grades six through 12. “We have an advisory system so all of our teachers are responsible for nine to ten scholars, and they were able to contact them and remain in touch with them to make sure they were reading over the break.”
“Losing a week is always detrimental to children,” Brown added. “As you know we’re implementing the New York State Common Core Standards, and we don’t want to lose on that. We’re implementing professional development today with our staff.”
And the state exams, she said, “are never the last things on our minds.”
Some of the 43 schools relocating tomorrow lack basic classroom supplies, but Peggy Wyns-Madison, the principal of P.S. 15, said moving trucks delivered supplies from her old school to the new one this morning, so she will not have to make do without.
“Every classroom is stocked with resources from our math curriculum, reading curriculum, writing curriculum, so it’s going to feel as close to possible to the new normal,” she said. “We’re happy we were able to get those resources into the building today.”
After a visit from schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, the principals walked reporters through the school’s pristine computer lab and library, which would likely serve as make-shift classrooms for multiple classes at once tomorrow.
Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky told reporters in a phone call later that day that he is satisfied with the effort principals like Jackson and Brown have made to accommodate new colleagues who have been displaced.
“The schools that are hosting are being incredibly generous. They are going out of their way to make the resources they have available,” he said. But those resources, he added, “do not always match up with what’s needed.”
Wyns-Madison said she is grateful to be at the Neighborhood School, noting that many families were uprooted by the hurricane and would welcome the stability it offers, even though it isn’t their usual location. The two schools are about half a mile apart.
“Safety is always a major concern for us, so the most important thing was to think about the families and the type of conditions they were under, to make sure we didn’t add to the issues that they were wrestling with,” she said. ”We wanted to make sure they would attend a school that was within hopefully walking distance.”
Wyns-Madison said she still has not been able to reach all of her families, many of whom last power or cell phone service, but met with some in person today as they arrived at the school, which is a polling site, to vote.
The Department of Education posted a document on its website outlining ways teachers can address the outsized challenges students may be facing, and how to incorporate news about the hurricane into their lessons tomorrow.
Walcott’s advice to teachers was to help students who may have been traumatized by the hurricane think about their experience in a broader context. And all the better, he said, if hurricane lessons are aligned to the Common Core, the state’s new and high-stakes curriculum standards.
“They can talk about the students experiences, they can either share their own experiences, they can talk about the schools’ experiences and use that as a proxy of what happened last week,” he said. “Especially if it fits into the Common Core, and really having the students express themselves and talk about it.”