Staten Island schools affected by Sandy get high-profile visitors

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (left) and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan toured a storm-swept area of Staten Island between school visits today.

After Hurricane Sandy devastated Staten Island, New Dorp High School sprang into action.

Under the leadership of Principal Deidre DeAngelis, the school turned into a command center for the area, hosting a school displaced by the storm, drumming up donations from alumni, and distributing food, clothing, and blankets to students and staff members who needed them.

On Thanksgiving, New Dorp hosted a dinner for 650 families. “Matt cooked until he couldn’t cook anymore,” DeAngelis said about the school’s culinary arts teacher, Matthew Hays.

“We were so appreciative that we got help when no one else was helping us,” said Amanda Delapena, the student body vice president whose home was heavily damaged.

“I thought the story of what this school has done needs to be told,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said during a visit to the school this morning. At his invitation, U.S. Secretary of Education also visited the school, along with Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Ernest Logan, president of the principals union.

After leaving New Dorp, Duncan and Mulgrew toured a heavily damaged neighborhood, then rejoined Walcott to visit nearby P.S. 38, where 80 percent of students were displaced by the storm.

Dozens of New Dorp’s teachers, students, and staff members gathered in the school’s mock courtroom to share stories from the storm with the officials.

Students described being separated from their parents, seeing family members injured, and escaping their flooded homes by kayak. Staff members told of returning to their homes to find everything they owned destroyed, and in some cases, not yet being able to return home at all. Others said they had weathered the storm unscathed, then joined the effort to support members of the school community who had not been so lucky.

New Dorp has has more than 2,500 students, but for nearly a decade it has been arranged into mini-schools called Small Learning Communities, facilitating personal relationships between students and teachers. DeAngelis and others said the arrangement was key to the disaster response.

“If we weren’t where we are academically, instructionally, emotionally, we could have pulled this off so quickly,” she said.

Returning to the normal rhythms of the high school calendar has been a challenge, students and teachers said.

Huda Sami, a math teacher at New Dorp High School (in striped sweater), tells city, federal, and union officials about her experiences during and after Hurricane Sandy.

“SING really helped me get back into my daily life,” said Matt McComb, referring to a musical production that the school staged recently. “It was the thing I looked forward to, instead of going back home and seeing all the dead fish in your backyard.”

Huda Sami, a math teacher, told the officials that she and her family are still bouncing among hotels and using a ladder to access their beachfront home, whose stairs were swept away. Without power at home until recently, her eight-year-old son had been doing homework by the overhead light of the family car.

Thinking about her own students, Sami said she wondered how they would be prepared for Regents exams next month. “How is this going to happen?” she asked. “How am I going to judge them to give grades?”

“It was hard to absorb information the first couple of weeks, and teachers understood that,” said Christina Awada, a senior who had been in the middle of applying to colleges when her home was flooded. “We’re kind of getting back into the normal routine now.”

Duncan said after visiting P.S. 38 – where students were collecting presents collected by Toys for Tots and books donated by the UFT — that the academic performance of schools affected by the storm was not his top priority at the moment.

“This is not a time, quite frankly, when I’m focused on exams,” he said. “It about, how can we help kids — their physical, their emotional, their psychological needs?”

He said the U.S. Department of Education would provide grants for counseling services and was looking into subsidizing exam fees for students whose families now cannot pay them.

He also said that touring disaster-affected schools, as he has done in other parts of the country before, put other education issues into perspective. In particular, he said, the city’s teacher evaluation negotiations, which officials are under pressure to conclude within weeks, should be taken in context.

“If folks can be as thoughtful, as compassionate, as hardworking, as dedicated working through this kind of issue [of recovering from Sandy], I have every confidence they can work through frankly a much more minor — an important issue, but a much more minor issue,” Duncan said.

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

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.”