‘It’s Personal:’ One Principal’s Fight to Save a Flooded Coney Island School

In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, thousands of New York City students are relocating to temporary schools, but for these troubled Brooklyn teens, their high school is more than just a building, it's a second home

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Sarah Garland for TIME

Flood waters flipped desks and cubicle walls in an office at Liberation Diploma Plus High School, in Coney Island.

In a first-floor office at Liberation Diploma Plus, a high school just three blocks from Coney Island’s famous beach, a pile of SAT study books bulge with filthy water. Desks are flung on their sides. The contents of the school supply closet—pencils, tape, paper, and folders—lie ruined on the floor. A layer of black, sewage-laced sand covers the cafeteria tables, and two refrigerators rest on their sides in dark puddles left over from the flood of sea water that consumed the school at the height of Superstorm Sandy.

Motivational posters, taped high on the wall, are all that’s untouched on the first of the school’s two floors. “You are not finished when you lose, you are finished when you quit,” reads one.

The students who attend Liberation Diploma Plus are by definition survivors. They’re young people who have considered dropping out of school after dealing with the trauma of poverty, family troubles, gangs, violence and other problems that get in the way of academic success. Each ultimately found Liberation, and grabbed one last chance to earn a high school diploma.

Now the school is hanging on by a thread in the wake of a storm that officials say is the worst ever to hit New York City. Thousands of schools on the East Coast closed due to the widespread power outages and flooding, many for all five days last week. As they reopen, many students will have to share space with evacuees still using schools as shelters. In New York City, 57 schools serving 34,000 of the city’s approximately 1 million students are located in buildings so damaged that students will have to be reassigned elsewhere, at least temporarily, according to a Department of Education spokesperson on Sunday.

For teachers, administrators and students across the region, the time away from school has been difficult, but for the students at Liberation—already among the city’s most vulnerable—it could be catastrophic.

“To see how the storm has destroyed the first floor of my school is almost too much to bear,” wrote April Leong, Liberation’s principal and founder, in a Wednesday email to The Hechinger Report. At the time she had only seen photos of the destruction wrought by Sandy. “Coney Island is in really bad shape.”

She was not fully prepared for what she saw there in person the next day.

Leong, who started her career as an English teacher in New York City’s District 79—a network of schools which serve teen parents, students in the criminal justice system and other struggling youth—is not the type to cry in front of people. But when she saw the overturned bookcases, the 5-foot-high water line, and the waterlogged computers and file cabinets, she nearly broke down.

Leong herself had painted primer on the walls outside for a series of colorful murals. She “put each lock on each locker, and made the combinations work.” At one point or another, she had touched just about everything in the building.

“It hurts,” she said. “It’s very personal. It could have been my own home feeling the way I feel.”

Many students and staff at Liberation also describe the school as a second home. Liberation is smaller than many of the schools that have opened under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with only 189 students and 10 teachers in 2011, according to the latest data published by the state education department. About 81 percent of students received free- or reduced-price lunch that year, although the number of students living near the poverty line may be higher because older students tend to be less likely to sign up for subsidized meals. The students are relatively diverse: 46 percent are black, 39 percent are Hispanic, and 13 percent are white.

Liberation is known as a “transfer” school; it’s meant for students who fall behind in their credits at the city’s traditional high schools, or who have dropped out altogether. The school is part of a network of similar alternative schools across the country — including eight in New York — run by Diploma Plus, a Boston-based nonprofit. For some transfer schools, meeting the city’s requirements for school progress has been difficult given the nature of the students they serve.

But Liberation scored an A on its latest report card. Eighty students out of the entire 180 enrolled at the school earned a diploma in 2011 and 50 graduated last year, according to Leong. Students enroll at the school throughout the year—sometimes as late as March—and many never thought they would graduate at all. (You can read more about Liberation in a series by The Hechinger Report about the about the city’s success in raising the graduation rate.)

Paula Gallardo, 18, came to Liberation after attending New Utrecht High School, which has more than 3,000 students. Although New Utrecht performs well academically—with a graduation rate close to the city average—Gallardo says she hated the school. “I stopped going to class,” she said in a phone interview. A friend told her about Liberation, and she showed up on its doorstep a year and half ago. Now, she’s on track to graduate next spring. “I didn’t think about the future before,” Gallardo said. “It’s doing a great job of helping kids.”

Gallardo enjoyed the vacation from school after the hurricane, but she’s ready to go back. Schools in New York were cancelled all last week, but most students are expected to return Monday. The 34,000 who attend schools severely damaged in the hurricane will have to wait until Wednesday, however, when they’ll be reassigned to other buildings until their own schools are fixed, according to a list published by the Department of Education.

Liberation is on the list, and its students are supposed to report to Canarsie High School, about 10 miles away. Leong has begged officials to let her open her building on Wednesday despite the damage. The school rents out the first and second floors of a church building, and the second floor was untouched by the floodwaters. Leong worries that those who evacuated or lost power won’t get the message to report to class elsewhere. And some of her students “pleaded with me to make sure they would be allowed to come here because they will not go anywhere else,” she said.

On Friday, only one staff member spent the entire day at the building: Matthew Cribb, the custodian. He wore gloves, plastic bags stuffed into his shoes, and a purple and gray Liberation Diploma Plus sweatshirt. He brought with him several members of his family, who had volunteered to help with the cleanup. His wife, Nella Gallardo (Paula’s aunt), peered into one of the offices as Cribb’s uncle looked over her shoulder. “You can’t even get in here. Everything is garbage,” she said, eyeing several desks and cubicle walls that the flood had flipped onto their sides.

“To me, the school is wiped out,” Cribb said. “I feel so bad, because this is a family thing. I’ve been to a lot of schools, and this place is a whole different world.”

Cribb said that as of Friday morning, officials from the Department of Education had not visited the building. Officials did not respond to questions asking when someone would visit Liberation. Erin Hughes, a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Education told GothamSchools.org on Thursday that the department “had teams in the field all day and into the evening assessing conditions on the ground.” The school system’s headquarters are located in a section of Lower Manhattan that was itself without power all week.

Louis Boriello, a contractor volunteering to clean out the church, stopped by on Friday and agreed to help with the school, too. Boriello was furious about the city’s response in Coney Island and other nearby neighborhoods. “Nobody really knows how bad Coney Island is,” he said. “It’s truly devastated, and there’s nobody to help us.”

Leong is worried about what will happen to her building, but she’s most anxious about tracking down her students and getting them focused on their studies again. She and her teachers have heard from several students who called to say they were okay and offered to help with the cleanup. But twenty new students were scheduled to start classes on Monday, and the files with their names and contact information were destroyed in the flood—before anyone had time to enter them in a computer. “It’s going to be a scavenger hunt for them. Some might be totally displaced now,” she said. “My concern is bringing them all together and getting them motivated again.”

Gallardo, her student, is confident that she’ll succeed. “I have faith in this school,” she said. “The staff is really strong. We have hope.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, non-partisan news outlet located at Teachers College, Columbia University.