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.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.