January 11th, 2013
06:12 PM ET

Last New York school left closed by Superstorm Sandy re-opens

By Rose Arce, CNN

(CNN) - The very last New York school closed because of damage from Superstorm Sandy re-opened Friday, marking the end of a period that displaced 73,000 students.

The 1,100 students of Scholars' Academy walked into the building wearing blue T-shirts that said “Scholars' Strong” on the front and “Rockaway Resilient” on the back. The Rockaway Peninsula school is surrounded by water from the ocean and bay and located near a sewage treatment plant. Water from all three met on October 29 as the storm engulfed the school's first floor, leaving it unusable.

Many  students suffered significant damage to their homes and continue to live in temporary housing. Even the school's principal, Brian O’Connell, lives in a hotel provided by FEMA.

“The way you get through this is to look at the positives of it,” O'Connell said. “You can say, 'Isn’t this an adventure to look at the opportunity to be with my family in one room spending time together…we gained a deeper closeness.'

“Through commitment to collaboration, hard work, organization and communication, our school community rallied to quell the ripples of Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath for our students."


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Filed under: At Home • Hurricane Sandy
December 11th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

7 years to build school, 15 minutes for storm to wreck it

This is the second in a two-part series about recovery from Superstorm Sandy. Today's story follows one school, Scholars' Academy, as it struggles to reopen. Yesterday's story told the story of one student, Scholars' eighth-grader Ryan Panetta, as his family rebuilds after the storm.

By Rose Arce, CNN

New York (CNN) - Brian O'Connell remembers the plays in the big auditorium at Scholars' Academy, the workout room outfitted by parents, the rows of computers, the winning teams, the honor society.

“We had pretty much 100% of the kids going to college last year,” said O’Connell, the tall, fresh-faced principal of the school. “We had teams playing competitively around the city, an orchestra, plays on a top-notch stage.”

The night Superstorm Sandy pelted New York, it took 15 minutes to lose it all.

“I look at the videos and I can’t believe how quickly the water rose,” O’Connell said early this month as he watched surveillance footage from the storm.

The water flowed from the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, tainted by overflow from a nearby sewage treatment plant. The video shows water rising as if released from a spigot, sweeping through the front of the school, climbing up the front stairs and pouring into the basement boiler.

“The next time I got in there, my grand piano was floating,” O’Connell said.

Scholars’ Academy was one of 1,750 schools badly damaged by the storm, one of many still trying to clean up and rebuild weeks later. The nation’s largest school system was so wounded by the storm that it shut down for days. Even when schools reopened, 73,000 kids were displaced from their regular buildings. The district had lost 300 buses to water. Repairs moved quickly, but by early December, 5,400 children were still being bused to temporary schools.

Scholars’ Academy is one of 56 buildings that are so severely damaged they won’t reopen until next year. More than half the school’s students saw damage to their homes. All of them are now riding long hours to study in borrowed school spaces.


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Filed under: Hurricane Sandy
December 10th, 2012
04:00 AM ET

Home destroyed, school flooded, but student never misses a day

This is the first in a two-part series about recovery from Superstorm Sandy. The first story follows one student as his family struggles to keep kids in class while trying to rebuild. The second story shows how one school, Scholars' Academy, is faring after the storm.

By Rose Arce, CNN

New York (CNN) - The sky is still dark when 13-year-old Ryan Panetta wakes in his temporary apartment beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. The one-bedroom loaner has just a queen-sized bed, a couch and a folding table; he shares it all with his parents and three siblings.

He has traveled a long way from his family's beachfront bungalow to this high-rise housing. After Superstorm Sandy, his house near the Rockaways in Queens  is just a shell. His new daily commute - from makeshift home to temporary school - can take up to two hours.

“I’m tired, really tired,” he said at 6 a.m. one day in early December, already awake for a half-hour.

“It’s pretty hard. It's just adjusting to the new school, the long commutes in the morning to get to school, waking up really early to get ready for school and rebuilding the house. It's tough,” he said, his eyes red from sleep and sadness. “The house is destroyed and every time I look in there, it's like, ‘Wow. I never thought a storm could do that much.'”

Weeks after Sandy hit, Ryan is one of many still living through the ongoing aftermath of the storm. He's one of 73,000 students initially displaced from their schools, one of about 5,400 still attending classes in borrowed spaces. His double loss - home and school - means his life is in upheaval.

“We lost so much. All our things, the stove I’ve cooked so many meals on, the home my children were born in, the kids’ toys, everything except, thank God, the most valuable thing in the world, our kids,” said Karen Panetta, Ryan’s mother. “We can rebuild everything else. And we will.”


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Filed under: At Home • Hurricane Sandy • Middle school
The power of parents in a public school
Parent Vicki Sando reads to a group of students on the P.S. 41 Green Roof.
October 4th, 2012
04:16 AM ET

The power of parents in a public school

By Rose Arce, CNN

Editor’s note: Rose Arce is a senior producer in CNN’s New York Bureau who is also a regular contributor to Mamiverse.

(CNN) - I walked into Room 308 this year and made a beeline to see Luna’s contribution to the Art Wall, a rosy-cheeked self-portrait with an essay on her personal goal: learning to say hello to strangers. Her teacher has no such problem.

“Hello, everyone!” Clare O’Connell said brightly before telling parents about the hurdles in the second-grade curriculum.

She had me at “hello.”

My daughter’s teacher has the bandwidth to worry about her social development and teach beyond the test? And that’s not all the good news at school this year. Looming behind “Ms. Clare,” like the screen at an Apple product launch, was a gleaming new smart board, a silver-toned Mac and a camera that can shoot and project documents. There was also a calendar listing all the days the children of Room 308 will have classes in art, dance, chess, science (twice a week!), music and gym and a lunch program that provides fresh vegetables and fruits from recipes suggested by famous chefs.

My second-grader has that elusive part of the American dream: a good local public school. It’s not sponsored by IBM. It doesn’t live off a Gates Foundation grant. It’s not a charter or a magnet or a choice school with a crazy admissions process or breathtaking lottery. It isn’t part of a social experiment devised by the U.S. Department of Education and “seeded,” as government people love to say, with public money. It doesn’t qualify for Title I or any other numerical or alphabetical federal program with a pot of cash that resulted from a court decision or congressional act. The parents made it happen.

Our daughter was only 3 the first time we stepped into P.S. 41. There was a Class A auditorium, two playgrounds with artists’ murals, a fully stocked library, morning tutoring and afternoon chess, classrooms devoted to arts and sciences – all organized or paid for by parents. One of the parents, Vicki Sando, had launched a project to transform the roof into a huge science garden.

So far the efforts at environmental education were some big planters in the middle yard. Mysteriously, Principal Kelly Shannon talked about the rooftop garden as a sure thing. “The thing that makes this a great school is that the parents are so involved,” she said.

But it soon became clear that the conversation was going to be less about why you chose this school than whether to opt out. Ominous leaflets rallied parents to storm City Hall over rising class sizes. A woman spoke passionately about the wait lists that would send children to neighboring schools to avoid overcrowding. Grim scenarios were painted of staff layoffs, overworked teachers and scant supplies.

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Filed under: Elementary school • Parents • Practice
December 7th, 2011
06:25 AM ET

Does class size matter?

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on overcrowding and undercrowding in schools. You can see Part 1 here.

By Rose Arce, CNN

Weybridge, Vermont (CNN) – The sun climbs the steely gray sky, and tiny Weybridge Elementary lights up to greet its young.

At Weybridge, four full-time teachers work with just 52 students.

Black and white cows that look like Oreo cookies sometimes give birth in the playground. The closest neighbor is a cemetery shadowed by towering maple trees.

“We like having small schools and a sense of community in a bucolic setting, but it comes at a great cost when birth rates are falling, and the cost per pupil and property taxes keep rising,” said Spencer Putnam, who runs the town meetings that decide most things in the 250-year-old town, population 800. Just a single child entered Weybridge’s kindergarten this year, and a quarter of the 52 students will graduate from this school in the spring. There just aren’t enough darn kids.

Vermont has the highest per pupil spending in the nation at $15,000, yet Weybridge spends even more than that, an eye-popping $18,000 per pupil. The national average is just under $10,000.


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Filed under: Elementary school • High school • Issues • Policy • Practice
December 6th, 2011
07:02 AM ET

Does class size matter?

By Rose Arce, CNN

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series on overcrowding and undercrowding in schools.  You can see Part 2 here.

New York’s Forest Hills High School comes alive at 7:30 in the morning when students swarm in to start their day. But there are so many students, that the school has created a second shift at 8:30 and a third at 10:30 a.m. By the time the last students arrive, the first are already having a very early lunch.

That’s just one solution schools around the country have found to the vexing problem of overcrowding. In schools across the country, trailers line parking lots and athletic fields, extracurricular programs and arts classes are vanishing and gym classes, which have higher size limits, are packed. The schools have lost nearly a quarter million teachers since 2008 because of budget cuts, and the long-lingering aftermath of the recession continues to bite.

“Overcrowding means students don’t get the attention they need from their teachers, they just don’t. They don’t learn as much, they withdraw, they become disruptive, some drop out,” said Leonie Haimson, a parent who runs Class Size Matters, a group advocating for better student-teacher ratios. “Parents and teachers know they can’t do their best in classes of 30 or more.”

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Filed under: Issues • Policy • Practice • video