April 26, 2013
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.
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.”