Six months after Sandy, a Rockaway school is still struggling

Channel View’s college applications celebration was “one of the best days” for the school since Hurricane Sandy, a student said. The school is still recovering from the storm.

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.

Channel View's sports facilities were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Nike is in talks to repair the field, according to people at the school.
Channel View’s sports facilities were severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Nike is in talks to repair the field, according to people at the school.

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.”

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.