Uprooted in Storm, Students Endure Trek to Class

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Nadia Brumell, 16, woke up at 6 a.m. in the unfamiliar home of her stepfather's grandfather in East New York, Brooklyn, to get ready for school. She later walked out into a cold, drizzly day and piled into a rented car with her mother, her grandmother and her brother. For 45 minutes they made their way to the Rockaways in Queens, past piles of debris, boats overturned in the road, caravans of Army trucks and a sign saying, "FEMA please help us."

A classmate, Shad Slocombe, woke up two hours early to boil water for bathing and to get ready. The first floor of his building, gutted, reeks of sewage and rotting trash. It is teeming with rats. "Hopefully, they won't come upstairs," he said.

Another schoolmate, Symonea Thomas, got up at 5:30 a.m. in an apartment she was sharing with her uncle, who was camped out on the couch, and her aunt, who has been bunking with her mother. Symonea needed time to straighten her hair and pick out her clothes. The school had suspended its requirement that students wear uniforms, since so many of them had lost much of what they had. But that introduced a new wrinkle to their day: trying to find a presentable outfit.

It was only 7:30 a.m. by the time the students arrived on Tuesday at their school, the Rockaway Park High School for Environmental Sustainability. Their first class was still a one-hour bus ride and half a borough away.

Life for the students of Rockaway Park -- among the 33 schools that remain severely damaged as a result of Hurricane Sandy -- has been upended. Many have been scattered across New York City, with relatives or in shelters. "We're concerned," said Jennifer Izzo, the guidance counselor. "We still can't find some of them."

The city's Education Department has reassigned 15,000 displaced students to other schools; the students and teachers of Rockaway Park are being sent to the Maspeth High School campus in Queens. Parents were upset, since their new school, like their old neighborhood, is not easily reached by public transportation. So the city agreed to send coach buses to Rockaway Park to take the students to and from their temporary school.

Every morning, students like Nadia reverse their flight from the Rockaways. But last week, when school resumed, the buses either did not show up or showed up late in the morning. On the first day back, only 30 of the school's 284 students arrived; the next day, the buses did not show up. The principal, Jennifer Connolly, had no way to reach most parents because they were not living at home and cellphone coverage was spotty.

On Tuesday morning, students were lined up in the cold, and the buses were waiting. But parents could not find any teachers or staff members. "It's a nightmare," said one mother, Jessica Alvarez, who was wearing pajama bottoms and drinking coffee. She had received different messages about what time the buses would be there, she said, and she had called the school 10 times to try to get an answer.

"I didn't expect it to be perfect," said Jen Kalisak, whose daughter Jaclyn is a ninth grader. "But you can't just cross your fingers and hope for the best."

Ms. Connolly arrived, and the buses departed between 8 and 8:30 a.m., taking the students out of the Rockaways. They passed the Old Mill Yacht Club, which was short a few yachts; sanitation vehicles; relief centers; traffic lights flashing yellow or not working at all; Howard Beach; Ozone Park; Woodhaven; and the Queens Center Mall.

Most of the students made it to school about 9 a.m. First period was lost. The building, with two schools, was crowded. Nadia's Spanish class was in the cafeteria; her American history class was "totally cramped," she said; and one room housed three classes at the same time.

Supplies were short, despite the fact that some workers had defied orders not to enter Rockaway Park High School, sneaking in to smuggle out science and math textbooks, which were there when the students arrived at Maspeth.

Also arriving at Maspeth on Tuesday was a truckload of donations that were quickly hauled into the lobby, creating a maze of trash bags.

Many of the students were poor before the storm, and now they had nothing. But some were reluctant to take anything. One teacher implored them to take home food, offering boxes of whole-wheat spaghetti and jars of tomato sauce to anyone who would take them. "Where are you living?" she said to one unwilling girl. "You have enough food? Enough blankets?"

When the student refused, insisting her family was fine, the teacher turned away and her eyes welled up with tears. "They are embarrassed," she said.

Other students dug in, stuffing peanut butter and deodorant into their backpacks, or filling their own trash bags with coats, blankets, cleaning supplies and toilet paper. "It's like Christmas," said Shad, 16, who was surrounded by boxes of canned beans, SpaghettiOs and boxed tuna salad.

Valintina Medina was not embarrassed. Quiet, with long sandy hair, she called her sister to check the clothing sizes of her five nieces and nephews. She methodically rooted through dozens of bags and piles of boxes, holding up toddler T-shirts and jackets. Her house had been destroyed and she evacuated in the dark in waist-high water, with her sister carrying an 11-month-old baby over her head. "It was so scary," Valintina said. "Overwhelming. We lost everything. Our house, all of our stuff."

As she returned to sorting and packing, others got silly, modeling parkas they assumed were from the '90s. (One group dressed up and took a photograph.)

"Mr. Jordan, I'm skiing!" one boy said, jumping up and down while wearing an array of donated items: a pink ski cap, children's gloves with faces on the fingers and a black parka with bright pink and yellow squares.

At 3:05 p.m., the students piled back onto the buses, some talking, others listening to music, many sleeping after their early morning. They arrived at Rockaway Park to the familiar sound of planes flying low overhead. The sun was setting, and the temperature was dropping.

The Education Department expects Rockaway Park, which had an oil spill from the boiler and needs a new one, to be open by Nov. 30. For Ms. Connolly, tomorrow would not be soon enough.

"I'm extremely worried about them being able to pass the Regents and to perform as well as they could have performed on the SAT before this happened," she said of the students. Because of a 4:30 p.m. curfew in the Rockaways, the free Kaplan SAT prep course she organized is being delayed, as well as other test-related programs.

Nadia is worried, too. But this week, she said, things improved when her teachers gave her homework.

"Now I can actually do something when I am at home," she said.

education

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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