A Good School Washed Away in the Storm

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2012

P.S. 333, the Goldie Maple School, is a Core Knowledge Official School in New York City.  It started the year with an enrollment of 578 children.  This morning, fewer than 30 showed up for the first scheduled day of class since hurricane Sandy punished the city eight days ago.

The school sits less than two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean in the Arverne section on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, a neighborhood that lay defenseless against the storm.  Hundreds of homes in the Rockaways were damaged or destroyed when a 12-foot storm surge submerged the slender spit of land in seawater and sand.   P.S. 333 was too badly damaged to occupy when New York City schools reopened this week–one of 79 schools in 44 buildings deemed unsafe.  The school’s temporary home, at least this week, is I.S. 126 in Long Island City, a school named after the late teacher’s union leader Albert Shanker, who taught and organized his colleagues there.

A school bus picked up the students for what turned out to be an hour and a half ride to the other side of the borough.  Only a handful made the trip.  P.S. 333’s principal, Angela Logan, was not surprised.  She can’t even estimate how many of her school’s families have left the neighborhood, for now or for good.  “When you look around, you don’t see people outside.  There’s no reason to come outside.  The stores are all gone.  There was a lot of looting and there’s a curfew in place,” she says.

I found Logan and her staff this morning in the third floor library of their temporary home.  They were not teaching.  They were working the phones, trying to find their students. “My teachers are calling right now to find out where are they and if they’re planning on coming to the relocation site.”  But even this temporary home is only temporarily theirs.  “They gave us this site this week,” she said.  “Next week we’re going to be at an elementary school and a middle school.”

It is unclear when their own building will be ready for use again.  The storm surge flooded the school’s basement destroying its boiler.  Water damaged the first floor. Power may be weeks away from being restored.  “The only thing I was told is that the boiler is definitely shot.  They’re thinking about putting a temporary generator and temporary boiler outside so it can power the building.  But they don’t know when they can do that,” Logan says.

P.S. 333 occupies a special place in the universe of Core Knowledge schools and the hearts of our staff.  It was one of the ten New York City pilot schools that road tested the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) program.  I’ve regularly brought visitors who are interested in the curriculum to observe K-2 classes there.  Thanks in part to the stellar results posted by teachers at Goldie Maple, CKLA is now being made available to schools statewide.  Indeed, the pilot was so successful that P.S. 333 continued to use the program even after the demonstration ended.  Their materials are still in the school in undamaged classrooms in the upper floors, but Logan and her staff are not able or even allowed to retrieve them.  “The Department of Ed said we’ll just purchase you new materials.  I guess for them that’s just easier,” she fumed.  “They have no idea we’re a Core Knowledge school.  I don’t need Dr. Seuss books.  I need the Romans and Greek books.”

Even that concern seems small right now.  With the loss of instructional time, the lack of continuity, and the disruption wrought by Sandy, Logan fears it will be a lost school year for many of her children, most of whom can ill afford it.  “How do you hold them accountable to sit there and learn when [the children are thinking] ‘I don’t have a house. When I go back home it’s freezing cold?’ Those kids are going to suffer,” she says.  Even after the all-clear is given and the school safe to occupy, there’s no way to know how many students will return. Some, perhaps most of the low-income families served by Logan’s school, will simply melt into the neighborhoods to which they’ve moved.  The scale of the dislocation is immense:  P.S. 333 is one of 11 schools in the Rockaways put out of commission by Sandy, and the smallest of them.  “No one’s talking about that right now.  What’s the reality for the kids that were on that Peninsula?”  She doesn’t know.

Logan is openly frustrated with city officials trying to give the impression that things are getting back to normal in New York City’s schools.  “You want to make it look good, but you’re not thinking about these kids,” she says.  That said, New York City is relocating more schools than Oklahoma City or Portland, Oregon has in total.

As Logan is speaking, a mother and small child wander toward us from the far end of the unfamiliar hallway that Al Shanker once roamed.  They look lost and bewildered.  “Look at the babies who’ve come,” she says.  “Some parents this morning were worried because their kids didn’t have their school uniforms.  They were washed away.  I’m like, ‘As long as you’re OK and your family’s OK.’  I just feel bad.”  Logan mumbles under her breath. “To think that’s something you’d think about right now.” She’s incredulous.  Close to tears.  “I just don’t know what to say.”

“You try to keep going, you try to move on,” Logan says.  “But this is crazy.”