On Tuesday, residents of Far Rockaway came to vote at the Scholars' Academy. They stood on a mud-caked basketball court behind the school that looked like a dry river bed. Several white tents were set up outside with a few propane tanks to help keep people warm. Across the street residents were dumping damaged furniture and household items on the street.
The Scholars' Academy is among 43 schools too damaged by Hurricane Sandy to reopen any time soon. The Department of Education has arranged for its nearly 1,200 students in grades 6-12 to relocate to two different schools, which are 10 miles away in East New York, Brooklyn. The middle schoolers will be absorbed into P.S. 13's building while the upper grades will have classes inside W.H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School.
Relocating 43 schools has been a logistical nightmare for the Department of Education, given that so many schools are already bursting at the seams. The Scholars' Academy isn't the only one moving across borough lines. Bard High School Early College on the Lower East Side of Manhattan will join its sister school in Long Island City. A special education school in Queens, 256Q, will relocate to P.S. 273 in East New York, Brooklyn. In other cases, however, neighborhoods are sticking together. New Dorp High School on Staten Island will take in its feeder school, I.S. 2, which was flooded.
Brian O'Connell, principal of the Scholars' Academy, acknowledged the commute to Brooklyn will be a long haul for his pupils, many of whom remain in the Rockaways without heat or power. Others relocated to other parts of the city to stay with relatives and a few even left the state. "We don't believe all of them will get there," he said of the relocation, though he acknowledged there aren't a lot of convenient places to relocate because their school is in such an isolated part of the city.
Late Tuesday, the Department of Education said it would provide buses from about half of the closed schools to their new locations. But it said it didn't have enough buses for everyone and that it would focus on students in grades K-8 who have to travel the furthest, and to high school students in the Rockaways. Parents were told to check the D.O.E. web site, and the agency said it was making robo-calls to families. Students who don't get school buses will have to find other ways to get to their new locations. The D.O.E. said it will reimburse families for transit, and give out free metro-cards to all high school students at relocated schools who do not already have one.
Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky said the city's main school bus office lost power, so officials couldn't consolidate routes and serve everyone. He hoped to add more buses soon.
The relocation is also a challenge for staffers. O'Connell said his own house in the Rockaways was flooded and he's now staying at a hotel in Brooklyn. Some staffers lost cars or homes. But he said all but a handful had been able to come to P.S. 13 for planning meetings, which were going well. He said the elementary school is giving up about 16 classrooms for his pupils. When his staffers arrived this week, he said, they were hugged by teachers from the receiving school and a charter school that also shares the building. "It was amazing to see that level of professionalism, the magnitude of humanity this crisis has sparked."
He said folding tables and chairs had been loaned from a local company. And the Children's Aid Society sent two staffers with a background in crisis intervention and trauma.
But Ann Marie Todes, who teaches sixth grade humanities at Scholars' Academy, worried about splitting up the school into two locations at a time of crisis.
"I absolutely do think they should try as much as possible to keep the kids together," she said. "They're traumatized." Todes said she's been teaching in the Rockaways for decades, which she describes as "a really tight community." She's been staying in touch with her students by email and telephone since the storm.
O'Connell said the whole school will meet at P.S. 13 on Wednesday. He is looking into whether his high schoolers could fulfill their course requirements by taking some of their classes online. This way they wouldn't have to attend as many classes in person, reducing the need to travel as much.
But there are other logistical challenges. Elementary schools don't have grade appropriate text books and classroom materials for relocated middle and high school students. Principals say some supplies have been donated already from publishers, and some elementary schools such as P.S. 100 in Coney Island are also looking for ways to donate or lend supplies. The D.O.E. says its also trying to match supplies and furniture with each relocated school.
Melessa Avery, principal of P.S. 273 in East New York, will be taking about 160 students with special needs from Q256 in Far Rockaway. Those pupils are in grades K-12, and they'll share a building with about 400 elementary students. She said she's giving the school 11-12 classrooms which are currently used for speech, counseling and occupational or physical therapy.
"They seem like a wonderful staff," she said, of Q256. Staffers from both schools worked together on Monday and Tuesday to move furniture and prepare for the co-location. But she wondered about whether all the buses would arrive on time. "Luckily we start school at different times," she said, adding that dismissal "might be a little hectic."
"As long as everything goes according to plan we don't have a great deal of issues."