Field test

For storm-swept Rockaway football team, a brief bright moment

Coach Victor Nazario had no shortage of material to draw on as he launched into a pep talk for the Beach Channel Campus Dolphins before their playoff football game on Saturday.

Less than two weeks before, the Rockaway Peninsula — home to Beach Channel and many of its students — had borne the full force of Hurricane Sandy. Since the storm, members of the football team, like so many others, had been camped out in cold, dark apartments or bouncing among family, friends, and hotels elsewhere — anywhere with power and heat and access to food.

On Thursday, Nazario rushed to organize a practice to prepare for the Saturday matchup, but he was not sure if enough players would show up. A day earlier, just 15 percent of Beach Channel students made it to the school’s first day in a new location.

Now, just before kickoff, Nazario looked around the Port Richmond High School cafeteria, the team’s makeshift locker room, and saw that he had enough players to field a team. His voice cracked with emotion almost as soon as he opened his mouth.

“Needless to say, the last two weeks have really tested our character and our resilience and, in my opinion, you guys passed in flying colors,” Nazario said.

Before heading out onto the field, Nazario reminded the players to relish their time on the field.

“We handle our business,” he said. “And then we go home to deal with the dark.”

Coaches Victor Nazario (right) and John Coscia hug senior co-captains Justin Zemser and Breland Archbold after their loss Saturday.

Darkness has been a resolute companion after sunset for the tens of thousands of Rockaway residents still without power two weeks after the storm. Cell phone service on the peninsula remains spotty, basic needs are in short supply, and traffic is clogged with vehicles from the National Guard and other organizations brought in to assist in recovery.

For the players, talk of “the darkness” is one part communal joke, one part shorthand to describe their new normal.

Seniors Marcus Wilcox, a co-captain, and Nkoze Stewart said the kitchen has become the most popular room in their apartments — not for what food gets cooked, but because huddling around an open stove is the only way to stay warm.

Junior running back Chris Reed and his family decided to stay in their 10th-floor apartment because his grandmother, who lives four floors above, didn’t want to evacuate. Reed said he’s spent the last two weeks shuttling supplies up and down dozens of flights of stairs for his family.

“At least you’re staying in shape,” Nazario told Reed by way of consolation.

“How can a carpet be cold?” said Michael Stanley, a junior wide receiver. Stanley had been been staying in East New York but slept on his cousin’s floor Friday night back on the peninsula so he could make the early morning team bus to Staten Island. “I’ve never felt anything like that.”

Stanley is one of several Beach Channel plays to have fled the remote, 11-mile-long Rockaway peninsula entirely. Senior co-captain Justin Zemser, a wide receiver, headed to Long Island after a gas leak in his apartment building forced all of the residents out. Star defensive lineman and University of Connecticut-bound Folorunso Fatukasi is living in a Brooklyn motel room with his parents and two brothers. Senior left tackle Roger Arrington evacuated more than 100 miles away upstate.

Of course, if Sandy never struck, the 12th seeded Dolphins (5-3) still would have been steep underdogs against the fifth-seeded Port Richmond Red Raiders (6-2). Port Richmond recruits from a student body of more than 2,100, but because the city is in the process of closing Beach Channel, its student body has shrunk to just 400. New schools in the building, whose students are also eligible for the team, add only 1,200 more potential recruits.

Still, the storm added to the odds against the Dolphins.

Nazario found out on Tuesday that the Public Schools Athletic League, which oversees sports in the city’s public school system, intended to move forward with the playoffs with or without the Dolphins.

Nazario had a choice to make: forfeit or round up players he hadn’t seen in weeks and ask them to take a break from their families to play the game.

But after he spoke with Zemser, Wilcox, and Breland Archbold, his senior co-captains, the decision became clear: The Dolphins would not cede the game to Sandy.

“We told [the coaches] that we’d get the players if they get us the equipment,” Wilcox said.

But the Dolphins still didn’t have a practice field. The field at Beach Channel campus was turned into a landing pad for emergency helicopters and Nazario said he cringed when he first saw what they’ve done to his 50-yard line. On Thursday and Friday, the team practiced at nearby Far Rockaway High School, which is located further in land.

On Saturday, 25 Beach Channel players suited up to take on about 40 Red Raiders in a contest that Nazario compared to the battle between David and Goliath.

“Everything that you’ve endured, it’s like ridiculous that you guys even thought about playing this football game,” Nazario said in his speech. He added, “Everything that we’ve been through for the last two weeks, winning this football game should actually be easy.”

In the Hollywood version of the playoff game, Nazario’s speech would have foreshadowed a come-from-behind victory over both Port Richmond and tragedy. But in real life, the Red Raiders jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead and never looked back.

Beach Channel gained momentum briefly in the second quarter. Archbold, the team’s star quarterback, ran the ball 80 yards for a touchdown to make the score 14-6. He had the Dolphins driving again when Port Richmond intercepted a bobbled pass and returned it  for a touchdown. The final score was 38-6, sending the Red Raiders on to the next round of the playoffs.

For Beach Channel, the loss marked the end of the season. After the game, Nazario cried some more, but this time he had company. As he gathered his team for a final sendoff, he thanked his players again for overcoming steep odds even to step on to the field.

Fatukasi told his teammates to stop crying, to be proud of their performance. Then he was wiping tears from his own eyes [VIDEO].

Spirits were higher back in the cafeteria. The players ate pizza — courtesy of Port Richmond — and basked in the last few minutes of fluorescent light and radiated heat.

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

“Now we gotta go fix this town up,” he added.

After the game: “No more crying…We’re leaving this field with respect.”

 

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.