Traumatic events have the potential to bring out the worst or best in people. As the school principal of the Scholars’ Academy in Rockaway Park, I have had the privilege and good fortune to witness countless acts of compassion and kindness as a result of Hurricane Sandy.
The awesome power unleashed by this storm humbled me as a human, a father, and a principal. Fortunately, an equally awe-inspiring and humbling counter-lever to this storm has been the great response by people throughout New York City, pitching in to help us deal with the recovery process.
The Scholars’ Academy staff, as well as countless New York City Department of Education central office staff, has been toiling around the clock to get students back to learning throughout the city. In Rockaway, where I lived until the storm, city workers (sanitation workers, police, fireman, etc.) and countless volunteers have been joining with residents to dig out of this mess. It is truly inspirational to see the good in people. We can focus upon the looting and the negatives in the aftermath of the storm, but the reality is that I am witnessing much more good in people than evil.
Sandy has been testing our mettle and we are rising to the occasion.
The Scholars’ Academy is a grade 6-12 school of just under 1,200 students. More than half of our students and staff were left virtually homeless by this storm. Some students’ homes burned to the ground, some staffs’ homes were filled floor to roof with seawater. Yet, one week later, we have 60 percent of our students and more than 95 percent of our staff in school on the day of a Nor’easter in two relocation schools in East New York, Brooklyn.
These are significant numbers considering that gas is limited, half of the Scholars’ staff is relocated at hotels, temporary apartments, or friends’ houses, and more than 60 percent of our students have lost their homes, lack gas, heat, hot water, or power.
Scholars’ Academy has always been a unique school. When we started the school as a program under Regional Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Cashin in 2005, circumstances and constraints forced us to inhabit two schools: one in Belle Harbor at PS 114Q and one in Far Rockaway at PS105Q, the latter of which was hosted by a great principal named Laurie Shapiro. Then, like now, it was the warmth of the welcoming principal and her staff that made the cohabitation viable and possibly more enriching than being alone.
Two days ago, the Scholars’ staff was welcomed by the staff of P.S. 13 led by an extraordinary principal, Sabrina Fleming. The scene of Ms. Fleming’s team literally hugging and shaking hands with the teachers from Scholars’ Academy brought tears to my eyes. It was emotional and it was amazing. The next day, Ms. Fleming made a “Welcome Scholars’ Academy” banner with pictures that she took from our school’s website, students created welcome cards for our teachers, a kindergarten class gave me a welcome card, and Mr. Diaz, the custodian, and his crew, lugged 50 folding tables and 300 folding chairs into place so that we would have enough seats for our students. Meanwhile, several blocks away Principal Jocelyn Badette and his team muscled furniture and other materials around to get ready for our Scholars’ Academy High School students to arrive soon.
The support from the educators at both of these receiving host schools continues to be incredible. We at Scholars’ Academy are very grateful for their help and their patience as we disrupt their routines and regular work.
Behind the Scholars’ Academy scenes, teachers and staff invested two days of time to plan lessons that would assess and gauge the psychological and material well-being of the students. On the weekend, teachers and staff volunteered at one another’s houses in the Rockaways, Roxbury, Breezy Point, Long Beach, and Broad Channel. Basements were emptied, walls gutted, debris removed and spirits lifted.
Back at the relocation sites, staff set up classrooms, placing table cloths on the donated party tables to create a warm and welcoming learning environment for their students. The internet was literally ablaze with work and ideas as teachers hit “reply all” on just about every email. I found myself tracking our staff’s empowerment and incredible heavy lifting into all hours of the night and early morning, mouth open and eyes watery at the significance of their efforts, the sincerity of their hearts, and the intensity of their focus.
From moment one, the amazing assistant principals at the Scholars’ Academy, Michele Smyth, Toni Marie Sorrentino, and Scott Milczewski took the reins of the school and worked tirelessly to prepare to open up a new school in a new location more than 30 minutes by car from our Rockaway location. Concerned about attendance rates and losing students to uncertainty, the team jumped into action planning: administering Google Doc surveys to students to assess whether or not they would attend school at the host sites. The results were alarming. Many students indicated travel hardships and a variety of concerns. The team had to act fast to address the needs and fears of the students, already extremely traumatized by Hurricane Sandy.
The data collected from students indicated that transportation seemed to be the keystone of the potential success of the relocation plan, so our staff, led by secretary Rosa Lagombra, secured the cooperation of several yellow bus companies to provide busing from geographically strategic locations in Mill Basin, Howard Beach, Ozone Park, Richmond Hill, and Far Rockaway. We were also fortunate to receive Department of Education transportation support from the school site in Rockaway Park. To support our students, between yesterday and today, I rode the yellow buses from the Scholars’ Academy with our students in the company of Robert Lopez, Borough Safety Director and Joe Zaza, CFN 201 Network Leader. Both of these men, also adversely impacted on a personal level by Hurricane Sandy, proved their mettle through their supportive actions in the midst of crisis. A “cheese-bus” trip on a bone and filling-jarring bus ride from Rockaway to East New York goes a long way in demonstrating mission focus and commitment to children.
These efforts paid off. Under threat of a Nor’easter storm, the Scholars’ Academy had more than 60 percent of students in attendance. Our high school students and middle school students again rode yellow buses from our geographical rally points to the school with staff member volunteers. On a recent bus ride to our new location, I asked how many of the students lacked electricity, heat, or hot water. Every hand went up. Yet, every student sat tall and focused on getting to school and getting to learning. Internally, I was very sad for them and wished I could flip a switch and help them. At the same time, I was so proud of them, so humbled by them, and so inspired to work hard for them. These are truly remarkably dedicated and tough students.
As I reflect upon the next phase of the operation: ensuring my team devises a robust program for our students under these circumstances, while nailing down other logistical issues, I realize how fortunate and blessed I am to have the opportunity to be with so many wonderful students and staff members. I am proud to be a New Yorker and proud to be a principal of a New York City public school.
Eight years after starting the Scholars’ Academy, one school, at two locations, we find ourselves in a similar configuration although under different circumstances. The experience is shaping up to be a powerful and pivotal force that is forging even tighter bonds in our school community. Friendships are being made, loyalties strengthened, and leaders developed. When one pulls back and permits the physical destruction of Sandy to fade from focus, a kaleidoscope of kindred spirit pushes the waves of despair beyond the sands and back to the ocean where they belong.