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Schools look ahead to making up class time

Art teacher Keith Gamache guiding his students through

Art teacher Keith Gamache guiding his students through their "relief sculpture" project during Arts & Ceramics class at South Side High School in Rockville Centre. (Feb. 7, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Thousands of students across Long Island will be in class during the week of Presidents Day, plowing through algebraic equations, giving mock candidate speeches and building model roller coasters -- an unprecedented change from a 40-year norm to make up class time lost to superstorm Sandy.

About two-thirds of the Island's 124 school districts will be in session during all or part of what would have been the midwinter break, Feb. 18 through 22. For students, families and educators who plot their lives around school calendars, that means forgoing vacations, cruises and visits to far-flung family.

"Now I've seen it all," James F. McKenna, head of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association, said of the midwinter break's curtailment or cancellation in so many districts.

McKenna, superintendent of Mattituck-Cutchogue schools, said he doesn't recall a time in his four-decade career of losing vacation days because of a weather event.

Administrators in a sampling of Nassau and Suffolk districts that are holding classes said they expect "business as usual" and high attendance that week, whatever plans people had before Sandy struck Oct. 29.

"It's difficult," said Rosemarie Bovino, superintendent of the Island Park school district. "But we have an obligation to prepare them with respect to the core curriculum and to make sure they are going to be ready for state assessments in the spring."

In some districts, the prospect of absent students and staff is driving decisions about the use of class time.

David Bernardo, superintendent of South Huntington schools, said he has asked teachers not to give tests during that week to avoid the need for makeup exams by students who aren't in class. The district is holding classes Feb. 19 through 22.

"I'm not looking for a situation where we add any more stress to that week," Bernardo said.

In Long Beach, which will hold classes on those same days, superintendent David Weiss said many of the district's students and staff remain displaced from homes damaged by Sandy's storm surge and flooding. Long Beach Middle School remained closed for five weeks after the storm, with students temporarily relocated to the high school.

Weiss said he is continuing to try to strike a balance between attending to the students' emotional needs and moving them forward academically. "Long Beach is still in recovery," he said.

Some teachers are applauding cancellation of midwinter break, saying the class time -- well before spring exams -- serves students' needs.

"It's a gift to have it," said Keith Gamache, a teacher at South Side High School in Rockville Centre.

Seniors in Gamache's International Baccalaureate art class will spend next week working on their portfolios. Each student's work must be photographed, and they are required to write an artist's statement for judges who will assess their work at the end of the rigorous, two-year, college-level course.

Gamache said he's always wished for extra time for this portion of his program.

Jack Bishop, a history teacher at Kings Park High School, said students in his Advanced Placement government class will take on the persona of a 2016 presidential candidate, honing in on Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination and writing a speech in her honor.

Younger students will press ahead, too.

Fourth-graders in Amy Lederer's class at Giblyn Elementary in Freeport will read "Night of the Pufflings," a nonfiction work about baby puffins, short-winged birds with penguin-like coloring. The text will help them with a subsequent research report based on an animal of their choosing, she said.

Seventh-graders in Stephen Wolf's science class at Locust Valley Middle School will use insulation tubing, dowels and foam board to build roller coasters meant to teach them Newton's law of motion. A marble -- if it stays on track -- will determine whose model is the fastest.

Melissa Aronow, a seventh-grade math teacher at Seneca Middle School at Sachem, will help her students with statistics, building on the concepts of mean, median and mode that they learned last school year.

Jay Spitz, a ninth-grade math teacher at Long Beach High School, said there isn't much leeway in his subject area, so every day counts. He frequently eats lunch with his students, he said, and provides extra help after school. "Math is very specific, very quantifiable, and I have to get through it," he said.

For Spitz, Sandy's effects far transcend its impact on midwinter break.

He and his wife, with their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old twins, have been living with his wife's parents since Sandy destroyed the first floor of their house. They will move back in a few weeks, but with no working kitchen.

"We'll be living off a microwave and a hot plate," he said. Even so, Spitz said, it's his job to help his students succeed.

"I love my community. I love my job," he said. "These kids are going to do great on the Regents."

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