365 days later

A year after landfall, looking back on Sandy's toll on schools

The basement at P.S. 15 in Brooklyn’s Red Hook was also flooded with between five and seven feet of water, staff said.

One year ago today, city students had the first of what ultimately became at least a week — and in some cases longer — of hurricane days, after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the city, taking its transportation system, power infrastructure, and hundreds of school buildings offline.

A year later and hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs later, the schools are operating normally, for the most part. But the academicphysical, and emotional effects continue to resonate for some affected students and teachers. Here’s a look back at the last year.

The damage

In Manhattan Beach, water flooded P.S. 195’s auditorium to nearly stage level heights. In Gravesend, a newly-installed media center in the basement of William Grady Career and Technical High School was wiped out. And in Far Rockaway at the Beach Channel Educational Campus, the smell of oil lingered for months because of a spill caused by an explosion in the boiler room.

These were just a part of the damage that was discovered by inspectors In the immediate aftermath of the storm. About 200 schools — roughly 17 percent of the city’s 1,200 school buildings — were damaged by the storm, although most turned out to be minor. A smaller list totaling about 40 schools sustained damage that caused them to be inoperable for weeks and, in some cases, months. Some city schools are still operating with temporary boilers and human fire alarm systems today.

The response

Julie Cavanagh and her husband prepare to pass out supplies to Red Hook residents affected by the storm.

Mayor Bloomberg ended up closing all schools for five days, while some stayed shut for one or two days longer. Initially, the city used 79 school buildings as shelters for the most vulnerable victims of the storm, then consolidated its temporary tenants into a smaller list.

The city was eager to get teachers back to work quickly to lay the groundwork for a return to normality. While most schools reopened after a week and could quickly resume their normal school routines, dozens were thrust into new space-sharing arrangements to accompany refugees from the badly damaged schools. In a city where school co-locations can make for bitter neighbors, the space-sharing happened with cheer.

Similarly, the city and union put bickering and bargaining over teacher evaluations on hold to work together on storm recovery. Teachers and administrators pitched in to help students and their families, even as some had lost their own homes in the storm.

The long-term impact

Second-grader Jacob Stone and fourth-grader Thomas Daniel, seen here trick-or-treating in Harlem last year, used the city’s “Learn at Home” offerings while schools were shut.

In the first days and weeks after the storm, students and families placed a priority on relocating or getting their personal lives back in order. Student attendance at schools in some Sandy-hit areas were in the single digits, while most hovered around 50 percent. The citywide average attendance is usually over 90 percent.

To make up for the time lost in the classroom the Department of Education did a couple of things. First, the city and the teachers union put aside their considerable differences to reach an agreement to keep school open for three days during a week that was normally a vacation. The department also launched a website for parents to review curriculum and lessons with their children during the days off.

Many students barely missed a beat. But for some high-need students, the storm represented a significant disruption to a delicate learning environment. A top state education policy maker suggested this spring that students whose attendance had been diminished significantly because of Sandy and a subsequent special education school bus strike should not have to take the state’s math and reading tests.

Six months after the storm, teachers and students at one hard-hit high school said they were still struggling.”The reality is that the world is still upside down,” said a teacher at Channel View School for Research.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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