For a School Uprooted by Sandy, A Lesson in Storytelling
Guest Post by Hiten Samtani
Past the metal detectors and the group of police officers at the entrance of the W. H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in East New York lies a cavernous auditorium. Inside it, 24 students were being taken through an exercise.
“How would you describe yourself? ” asked Alyssa Molina, a 17-year-old with an upturned nose and impressively curly hair.
“Opinionated, passionate, and optimistic,” replied 17-year-old Lizeth Navas, adjusting her purple glasses perched on her nose and grinning to reveal her braces.
“Open minded, to an extent,” Alyssa suggested.
The banter was part of ‘Story to College’ a narrative writing and storytelling workshop, conducted for high school seniors from the Scholars’ Academy, a screened middle and high school in Rockaway Park, Queens that was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The school, which is known for its college readiness program and holistic embrace of technology, remains shuttered. Its high school students and staff have been temporarily relocated to W.H. Maxwell, which was removed from the list of turnaround schools in the spring but continues to see low graduation and attendance rates coupled with the effects of being in a relatively high-crime neighborhood.
Carol Barash, the founder of the workshop, said she feared the storm could jeopardize the college prospects of the students, many of whom are applying to selective schools that require supplemental essays. “I don’t want them to be stopped at the five-yard line,” Ms. Barash, whose own home in South Orange, N.J. lost power for a week, said.
Next, students were split into groups of two and three. Taking turns with an audio recorder were Sabrina Borno and Jeanné Gilliard, both 17. They joked, teased, and listened to each other to help uncover what workshop instructor Jack Scotti called “a moment—that single, telling incident that reveals something about you.”
Sabrina, who during the school week lives with her grandmother in Ocean Village in The Rockaways, evacuated to her uncle’s home when Sandy struck. She described the storm’s aftermath as “mindblowing.”
“It resembled a third world country,” she said. “The National Guard was out there. There was no power and people were looting homes.” In her application essays to visual arts programs at the School of Visual Arts and the Pratt Institute, she hopes to reconstruct what she saw.
Sabrina and her classmates talk to CNN about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Though Sabrina is acclimating to her new stomping grounds, she said she misses her campus and especially its gadgets. “We had Smart Boards and iPads in every classroom,” she said. “To go from that to writing down notes on a piece of paper, it gets pretty frustrating.”
Ana Solares, a bespectacled 17-year-old clad in gray, said that her family and others around her underestimated the impact Sandy would have.
“We’re Rockaway people,” Ana said, speaking in the measured tones of the lawyer she aspires to be. “We stayed.”
She wrote her college essays-- she’s applying to Cornell, Vassar and Macaulay Honors College—with the aid of a generator, she said. She described the challenges of switching
“You feel reassured,” she said, her stoic demeanor cracking slightly, “when you see your teachers at the end of the metal detectors.”
Some of the students present said they escaped the brunt of Sandy’s wrath. Others, such as Lizeth, weren’t as fortunate. The storm gutted her home, and she had to cope with seeing floating remnants of her furniture and Christmas ornaments. Though she now lives in a RV, she spent days bouncing around homes of relatives and friends, she said. “They had Netflix, so we watched movies and the news. I saw the damage to the main strip, 116th street. It’s where I take the bus, buy my milk. That’s when I realized that ‘Holy Cow, this is real!”
Ms. Barash, who founded Story to College in 2010, said writing had helped her come to terms with her own traumatic childhood experiences, including being raped at the age of 13. “I realized for myself how much liberation happened from writing about it,” she said.
Indeed, Michelle Villa, Scholars’ Academy’s counselor and director of the college office, said that many students wanted to change their essay topics and write about their experiences in the storm’s wake. She added that the workshop would help put students back into college application mode. “The hurricane threw off their priorities,” the visibly pregnant Ms. Villa said. “They had to focus on rebuilding homes and helping out their neighbors.” Many students still didn’t have the Internet at home, she said. “They were doing their apps at night, from Starbucks.”
The transition to Brooklyn had been a challenge, she said, but added that the school had been helped by both public and private sources. The city paid for private busing services to transport students to the temporary location, donated laptops through the iLearnNYC and offered virtual learning programs to displaced students. The teachers’ union also donated supplies, and Ms. Villa said that an elementary school “adopted” Scholars’ Academy and gave them a Thanksgiving feast. Remarkably, even on the first day back after the storm, attendance was at 86 percent, she said.
Though they temporarily share a building, students from Scholars’ Academy and W.H.Maxwell have little interaction. Scholars’ students enter the building from a separate entrance and are sequestered on the fifth floor. Michael Ammirati, the assistant principal in charge of discipline at W.H. Maxwell, said that there was some initial concern about the logistics of shepherding 402 extra students.
“We also wondered if our students would feel infringed upon,” Mr. Ammirati said. “None of that came to fruition; our kids have been very supportive. Sharing the space with Scholars’ Academy, Mr. Ammirati said, was akin to living with “the quiet roommate that doesn’t really bother you.”
But Scholars’ students said they felt out of place in the new building. “We’re kind of not wanted here,” Lizeth said. “We’ve just colonized.”
Still, there were positives to take from the devastation. The students took stock of their situation and adapted, and many gained a fresh perspective on what they hoped to achieve at college. Moreover, being uprooted from the comfortable humdrum of pre-Sandy life in The Rockaways and having to deal with dramatic upheaval did something to the class. “There’s a sense of community,” Sabrina said. “Everyone’s walking together, pulling through, closer than we ever were before.”