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Schools work to aid storm-displaced students

Reading teacher Stephanie Huggard works with her second-grade

Reading teacher Stephanie Huggard works with her second-grade students in the gymnasium at Bayview School in Freeport. (Nov. 29, 2012) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Hard-hit South Shore school districts, determined to maintain stability for hundreds of students displaced by superstorm Sandy, are providing added busing from communities where families have relocated and support services for those whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

The situation could continue for months of the 2012-13 school year as residents work to rebuild and return to storm-ravaged houses, school officials in many of those districts said. Through the turmoil, though, attendance is remaining steady.

In Oceanside, school officials at one point counted at least 750 students displaced by the storm. In Baldwin, the number is 180, and in Seaford about 160. Amityville, Massapequa, Lindenhurst, Long Beach and several Suffolk communities within the William Floyd district are similarly affected.

Freeport officials, with more than 250 students displaced districtwide, spent 36 hours figuring out transportation to reroute 500-plus children to other elementary schools because Giblyn Elementary School was flooded. Students now are taking classes in gymnasiums and computer labs. Some music lessons are given in the basement.

"We wanted to find solutions, and make sure our students are safe and return to school as quickly as possible," Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said.

The McKinney-Vento Act, the primary federal legislation on education of homeless children, requires districts to provide transportation to displaced students who live within 50 miles of district boundaries. It also provides free lunch.

"The overnight growth in the homeless population has generated all sorts of questions," said Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer for Eastern Suffolk BOCES. "A few districts are used to dealing with a few kids. It is now many districts that are dealing with an enormous population."


Extra costs unfunded

Officials in several districts said they do not have estimates of the added transportation costs yet.

"We are waiting to see if there is any legislation that would help us in paying for this extra transportation cost," Lindenhurst Superintendent Richard Nathan said. "At this point, I don't know of any."

Bixhorn said the districts are eligible for transportation aid from the state, but reimbursement is not 100 percent. A state Department of Education spokesman said it is too early to say whether districts will receive additional money.

John Striffolino, Seaford's assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and personnel, said the district has set up buses for students staying in Northport, Rockville Centre, West Babylon and Woodbury, among other communities. Not all of about 160 displaced students request transportation, and not all are living outside the district, he said.

"We have worked very hard to make sure if they need it, they can have it," Striffolino said.

For parents in the storm-affected areas, continuing their children's education with minimal interruption is a top priority.

Peggy and Mike Blitt, who have lived in Seaford for 15 years, chose to keep their 16-year-old son at Seaford High and enrolled their 6-year-old daughter in public school in Brooklyn. The family, who expect to be out of their flooded home for three to six months, are splitting their stays with relatives in West Babylon and friends in Brooklyn.

Peggy Blitt said her son, Sean, who has been staying in West Babylon, now has district-provided transportation. Before, he was getting rides to Seaford High from friends and relatives.

"It's relieved a huge burden, worrying about how he was going to get to and from school," she said.

Jamie Volini, a Seaford parent of two high school students whose home flooded, recently secured housing nearby and the district provided transportation for her son, who is in 10th grade. Her daughter, 17, drives him to school in the morning, but has a different schedule in the afternoon, so he takes the bus home.

"It really helps out, because I work and it is hard to get him at a certain time," she said.


Districts helping out

Seaford High School social worker Paula Sussman said she has seen symptoms of post-traumatic stress among storm-stricken students and families. The district has held donation drives to help residents, she said, but many items are still needed, such as materials and services to help residents move back into their homes.

"The magnitude of it is really starting to hit them," Sussman said.

As homes are repaired in Oceanside, the number of displaced students has fallen from about 750 to less than 600. The district faces an extra hurdle in supplying transportation: About 100 school buses were flooded and left inoperable, said Bob Fenter, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and research.

"We have a big challenge to providing students out-of-district with transportation when we had to work extremely hard to provide regular transportation that students receive," Fenter said.

In Baldwin, 180 district students have been displaced, with some students being bused to the district from Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Baldwin also took in about nine children from other districts.

Baldwin educators and parents hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and a pasta night for displaced students and families at local schools, Superintendent James Mapes said. All schools now are holding holiday toy drives for local families.

"We want to do anything we can to help the community," Mapes said.

In Freeport, school officials said, more than 100 displaced families requested transportation, with 60 living within district boundaries and about 40 outside the district.

Kuncham said the district is looking forward to reopening Giblyn Elementary this Monday.

In Long Beach, where middle-school students were moved into the high school and all elementary students were combined in two schools, district officials coordinated external pick-up and drop-off locations for students staying outside the city.

On Monday, sixth- and seventh-graders moved back into the middle school. Eighth-graders will remain at the high school for now.

Superintendent David Weiss said the district made efforts to ease the transition, including keeping students with their same teachers and classmates.

"We believe very strongly the most normal course for kids is to be in classes that they were in prior to the storm," Weiss said.

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