relief society

In battered Red Hook, teachers struggle to connect with families

Julie Cavanagh and her husband prepare to pass out supplies to Red Hook residents affected by the storm.

City teachers were told to stay home from school this week until today because of damages and disruption wrought by Hurricane Sandy. But staff working in one of the city’s worst-hit areas showed up anyway.

A group of teachers and aides from P.S. 15 in Red Hook met on Wednesday, just a day after the storm ended, hoping to distribute supplies to residents from the nearby Red Hook Houses, a sprawling campus of public housing where many of the school’s students live.

“P.S. 15 has always kind of been a hub for the community and in the absence of that hub, we wanted to try and do something,” said Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher who invited families via email to meet at the school on Wednesday afternoon.

Cavanagh bought $200 worth of supplies — water, food, batteries, and even som Halloween candy — at Costco that morning, and said her plan was to give it away at the school, which was also badly damaged from the storm that flooded the rest of the neighborhood on Monday night.

But few people showed up at the scheduled meeting time on Wednesday. Some families had likely evacuated, and Cavanagh said she knew of some co-workers and families who stayed put but weren’t able to receive calls or emails.

Cavanagh ended up giving some food and water to passersby outside of the housing project, including one P.S. 15 parent of three students.

Alys Lugo, a P.S. 15 paraprofessional who lives in the houses, took a gallon of water and tuna up with her. She said she was traumatized by scenes from the storm.

“I saw the water coming up, into the park and the streets,” said Lugo, who watched the storm’s surge quickly blanket surrounding blocks from her apartment in one of the tower’s top floors. “There was water everywhere.”

Chancellor Dennis Walcott told reporters on Thursday that most schools would not get a complete picture of how their families were affected by the storm until Monday, when students are expected to return. But the efforts by P.S. 15 teachers was one example of where teachers showed a greater eagerness to reestablish communication while schools were closed.

“It’s a horrible feeling to be disconnected from the kids we see every day not knowing where they are or if they’re alright,” Cavanagh said. “Folks feel a sense of urgency to get reconnected with students and families.”

Cavanagh and her colleagues eventually drove their supplies to Red Hook Initiative, a community-based organization that had quickly became a central meeting place in the neighborhood for hot meals and volunteer coordination. Cavanagh said she saw many P.S. 15 families at the center and thought the donations would be better put to use there.

P.S. 15’s staff remained uncertain about where they would be reporting once classes resume on Monday. While they were at Red Hook Initiative on Wednesday, they learned Mayor Bloomberg had announced that they would be expected to show up for work on Friday to prepare for the challenging circumstances.

“Where are we supposed to go?” asked Marie Sirotniak, another P.S. 15 teacher.

Late Thursday evening, an answer was still not clear. P.S. 15’s principal instructed teachers to meet at the school’s network offices in Bay Ridge. Department of Education officials had promised to release alternate locations for teachers working in severely damaged schools by Thursday afternoon, but did not do so until nearly midnight. Teachers from P.S. 15 were instructed to report to South Shore High School, more than eight miles away in central Brooklyn.

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:


The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.


In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news