Emotions still raw as Regents visit Sandy-affected city schools

IMAG0085Members of the state Board of Regents took a break from their cloistered policy discussions today to hear directly from families who were heavily affected by Superstorm Sandy last year.

“Every time it rains, like last week, the first words my son asks me” is if the house will flood, said Maryrose Spiteri. “He panics.”

Spiteri was part of a small group of parents and teachers from P.S. 38 on Staten Island who met in the school’s library this morning with three Regents: Chancellor Merryl Tisch, Buffalo’s Robert Bennett, and Staten Island’s Christine Cea. Principal Everlidys Robles estimated that 85 percent of her families “were devastated” by the storm and that 40 students — about 12 percent — had not returned.

The parents sat in chairs in a compact circle, where behind them a slideshow of events during the school’s recovery, which included visits from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Mets shortstop David Wright, was projected onto a wall. On a table nearby was newspaper clippings about the damage to Staten Island and binders of assignments from students who wrote about the experiences.

One kindergartner, in a persuasive writing assignment, called on Mayor Bloomberg to build more houses for people who lost their homes. Another student wrote about getting rescued from his home. “In the morning a boat came and took us to the shelter,” he wrote.

Tisch asked the parents to share their personal experiences as well and, in a series of emotional testimonies, they did so. One parent, Kim Fish, said her family was split up for 10 hours during and after the storm.

Another mother, Diane Cruz, said she left her children, including a son who has autism, at home with a relative while running an errand for supplies at a Duane Reade as the storm got underway. She wouldn’t see them again until the next day.

“For 13 hours, I didn’t know if my kids made it out alive,” Cruz said. In a moment of levity, she recalled how they were reunited. “All of a sudden, I see my kids go by in a boat,” she said.

Many of the parents said that where other first responders had failed to help them, P.S. 38 and its staff provided assistance. The school was operating again on Nov. 2, and teachers had organized food pantries and toy drives to support the families who had lost everything. Cruz, who was displaced and lived in New Jersey after the storm, said that she heard from neighbors that teachers knocked on her front door to check on the family.

“We didn’t get help from anyone else,” Cruz said.

Along with other state education officials, Tisch initially visited schools shortly after the storm struck. She said today that she saw impressive improvement but added that the parents’ emotional recollections highlighted the daily challenges that still exist.

“For the people living in it day-to-day, I think at some point you get very frustrated with the pace of the progress,” Tisch said. “I think the emotion is just that it was a real lifetime event for real families in real time and they’re still living in it.”

Tisch also put teachers — and students — on the spot to describe their experiences with last month’s state tests. The Regents have drawn criticism for allowing state tests to be tied to new standards known as the Common Core soon after the state adopted the standards. But Tisch said she had also heard encouraging responses to her own questions about the year’s tests.

“I think it is extraordinary when you talk to the teachers and the children to see that they felt prepared and ready for the task, which is not to say that they will have the highest scores,” Tisch said. “But it is to say that they implementation of Common Core — no matter the circumstance, and this was a very complicated circumstance — is something that is on the mind of educators and school systems throughout the state.”

While Tisch was on Staten Island, State Education Commissioner John King toured two Sandy-affected school buildings in Queens, including the Channel View campus. The group reconvened this afternoon for an abbreviated policy meeting and a forum on immigration and education, as part of a push this week for legislative relief for students who were brought to the country illegally as children.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”