Back to school

As schools stabilize, some students and supplies still missing

Council members Christine Quinn and Domenic Recchia hand out school supplies to students at I.S. 281 in Bensonhurst (Credit: William Alatriste)

If today’s attendance figures were a test of how well the city’s schools are rebounding from Hurricane Sandy, as Chancellor Dennis Walcott said they would be last week, then the city scored a 91 percent overall.

Even as 34 city schools remain unmoored from their damaged buildings, thousands more students showed up for classes today for the first time since the schools closed in October. At the same time, charitable efforts are shifting their focus toward replenishing those schools with basic supplies—most recently through a million dollar campaign, launched today, to supply students with backpacks and other supplies.

The city’s overall attendance rate is climbing, but schools in the areas that the hurricane hit the hardest are still struggling to fill their rosters. Of the fifteen schools that returned to their original buildings today, after relocating a week ago, Department of Education officials said about 77 percent showed up on average. And among the 37 relocated schools, two-thirds of students showed up—double the percentage from last week.

At Rockaway Collegiate High School, which relocated to Queens Metropolitan High School, just under half the student body came to school. At Beach Channel High School, which relocated to Franklin K. Lane High School in Jamaica, Queens, only 41 percent of students showed up.  And at P.S. 253, the attendance rate was 29.4 percent today, it’s last day at a relocated site. Officials announced this afternoon that it and two other schools—Mark Twain I.S. 239 and P.S. 279 Herman Schreiber—would be returning to their buildings starting tomorrow thanks to new repairs.

Yesterday city officials said all but six schools will likely return to their buildings by the end of November. The rest will have to wait until at least January, 2013. To stick to that timeline, the city will funnel $200 million in capital funds into school repairs.

Last week, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said city officials were hopeful that attendance would rise again in the displaced schools after taking Veterans Day off. Today officials said the attendance rates were a big step in the right direction, but still not sufficiently high.

“We think it is positive that attendance rates more than doubled in relocated schools as well as in schools returning to their original buildings,” Department spokeswoman Erin Hughes, said. “We think it’s important for all students to be back in the classroom though so we are looking into a number of ways that we can reach out to parents and students who may not be attending school and work on getting them back into the classroom.”

Another aspect of the school system is returning to normal this evening, city officials said: the city is closing the last of its school building shelters. Dozens of city schools served as shelters during the hurricane, and two remained open even after classes resumed last week.

As the school system continues to recover, its smaller-scale needs are beginning to receive heightened attention.

A number of charitable efforts are steering funds toward replacing basic school supplies that students and teachers might have lost during the storm. Last week, we reported that DonorsChoose had created a web page specifically dedicated to paying for projects from schools affected by the storm. So far it has raised $87,627 from 621 individual donors.

And today, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the United Federation of Teachers jointly announced the creation of a new $1.5 million fund, made up mostly of corporate donations, that would specifically go toward buying and distributing 30,000 backpacks filled with school supplies and books to students in displaced schools.

The department has also helped the relocated schools replenish supplies.  Last week it raised the spending cap by $1,000 for 47 schools that were originally displaced. The schools used the money to pay for printing and buy pens, staplers, dry erase boards, markers, supplies that were either lost or left behind in their home schools.

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.”