Scholars in the Storm
How one alumnus, the school he founded and a community beat Hurricane Sandy
By Michael R. Shea ’10 Arts
On a brisk February morning, 20 middle school honor students, most with a parent or two by their side, sat before plates of bacon and eggs in the second floor library at Scholars’ Academy, an accelerated New York City public school for sixth through 12th graders in Rockaway Park, Queens.
“This,” school principal and founder Brian O’Connell ’89 told the gathering, “is my favorite day of the month.”
The students had earned their special before-school breakfast with O’Connell through a combination of good grades and good character. During the next hour these Outstanding Scholars of the Month were celebrated; the principal read glowing letters from the teachers and the students posed for pictures snapped with an iPad before beaming parents. For these kids, it was an achievement on many levels: some of them still lived in hotels, or with their extended families or in the few rooms in their homes not destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
Scholars’ Academy sits in the middle of the Rockaway Peninsula, on a slice of land less than a ½-mile wide, sandwiched between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. When Sandy made landfall here on October 29, it flooded the school in minutes. Saltwater mixed with overflow from a sewage treatment plant next door. The basement became a fish tank of floating waste. The gray-black water came up through the first floor, destroying everything that wasn’t suspended four feet up. The new gym floor, bought with the help of parents and local businesses, rippled and cracked. Black mold soon covered everything, working up the walls toward the classrooms on the second floor of the two-story building.
Scholars’ Academy was among the hardest hit of all New York City schools by the hurricane. It was also the last one to reopen afterward — nearly three months later, on January 11, which happened to be O’Connell’s birthday. Remarkably, thanks to the school administration’s quick redirection of students to temporary schools in East New York, most of the kids didn’t miss a single day of school.
“You stood out,” O’Connell told the 20 middle-schoolers. “You avoided distractions. You earned this.”
Scholars’ Academy grew from O’Connell’s vision. Born in Brooklyn, raised in the Rockaways by a taxi driver father and a mother who worked in the cafeteria at Far Rockaway H.S., he grew up watching its best students endure long bus rides to the city’s top middle and high schools. In 2003, as principal at The Belle Harbor School in the Rockaways (then just an elementary school), O’Connell was struck by the local class numbers: Of the 125 fifth-graders graduating from his school, only 24 matriculated to Rockaway Park’s only middle school, P.S. 180.
“Parents vote with their feet,” O’Connell says. “For a lot of reasons, they didn’t feel a viable middle school option was in their community.”
With the support of his regional superintendent, Kathleen M. Cashin Ed.D. — now a member of the New York State Board of Regents — O’Connell drafted the plan for a different kind of school on the edge of Queens. As an accelerated program, it would require applicants to score high on the city’s standardized tests. As a meritocracy, it would retain the Rockaways’ top talent, regardless of race, religion, neighborhood or financial situation.
Anywhere other than a school hallway O’Connell could be mistaken for a politician or corporate executive, with his direct manner and tailored suits. But here at Scholars’, he seems more like a fun uncle. “Hey, Mr. O!” the students call out, holding doors for him, asking about his weekend.
Outside his second floor office, O’Connell stops. “See this,” he says, slapping a wall that’s covered with photos of his wife and two kids, of students and of school sporting events. “This is my Facebook. No one can hack it.”
Inside, a small Irish flag hangs over his desk. His father is Irish. On one bookshelf is an autographed picture of The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts. His mother is Italian. Through the window, the football field of next-door Beach Channel H.S. stands against Jamaica Bay. “That’s where I made a 95-yard touchdown run,” O’Connell says. “I’m sure that’s why I got into Columbia.”
O’Connell was an all-city fullback and rushed for just shy of 1,000 yards his senior year, 1984. Recruited, he played all four years at the College, at a time when the program wasn’t quite so storied. “Sports Illustrated covered us one year, and not because we were great,” he says, laughing. When his team broke the school’s 44-game losing streak, he swung from the goal posts with the other players.
O’Connell graduated with a major in political science, though his mother told him: “You should become a teacher. You’ll never be bored.” He says she couldn’t have been more correct. “I’m restless. I have a lot of energy. It’s still something I manage and focus.”
After Columbia, O’Connell substitute taught in Brooklyn while earning a master’s in elementary education in just five months at Adelphi University on Long Island. He also owned two taxicabs that he managed out of Howard Beach Taxi. During Easter recess one year, his driver wrecked a car on the Van Wyck Expressway; his second car had engine troubles and was down for the count.
“I spent the whole break taking the front end off one car with a ratchet set and putting it on the other car. It was mechanical, finger-banging, hand-scrapping, back-breaking work,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t for me.’ I knew I had to throw myself 100 percent into education.”
He was hired full-time as a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 236 Mill Basin in Brooklyn in 1992 and rose to assistant principal in 2000. But that December, he found himself “in a funk,” having lost out on a principalship. He turned to technology, always his hobbyhorse, and started videotaping his best teachers in action in the classroom. On staff development days, he showed the videos to staff, and the highlighted teacher would present on how his or her style worked.
In April 2003, O’Connell was promoted to principal of Belle Harbor School, the elementary school where he realized just how few Rockaway students stayed in the Rockaways for middle and high school. That summer he was tapped by Cashin and started on what he calls “the dog and pony show of selling a school.” He pitched the district and the community the idea of a gifted middle school program that could retain the peninsula’s best and brightest.
Scholars’ Academy opened in 2004 as a sixth-grade middle school program, with the students divided between two locations in East New York. A year later the staff and students moved into a permanent home, which they shared with a struggling local high school, P.S. 180. By 2006 Scholars’ had morphed into a full middle school, hosting grades six through eight. In 2007, based on community response, it expanded into an accelerated high school program by adding one grade a year until 2011, when its first senior class graduated. P.S. 180 was eventually phased out and Scholars’ Academy has since earned straight A’s on its NYC Department of Education Progress Reports for both the middle and high schools.
If you found yourself in a Scholars’ classroom today and thought you’d wandered onto the set of Star Trek, you couldn’t be faulted. Technology is one of O’Connell’s core interests, and using it to enhance the classroom experience was a founding tenet of the school. It shows. There’s more technology packed into the 700-sq.-ft. rooms than your typical Apple store. The white boards are digital — three, four, sometimes five to a room. All the administrators and teachers carry iPads. There are carts with dozens of iPads and Kindles for the students to use. There are few textbooks and no paper. Every lesson is posted online and beamed to the walls and the tablets. Parents have logins to the school’s website and can track their children’s progress.
The curriculum is built around the SCALE-UP model, which places students at round tables, not desks, in “learning triads” or “cooperative learning groups” to encourage collaborative learning and team problem solving. “It’s about promoting interdisciplinary learning, where it fits,” Cashin says. “We created a strong framework with lots of reading, fiction and nonfiction, a lot of writing and a lot of project-oriented learning. Brian took that framework and moved it to a new level. He’s so talented, so intelligent that he saw how technology can reach out to parents, enhance communication and heighten integration in the classroom.”
Approximately 25 percent of Scholars’ Academy students come from east Rockaway peninsula, which is predominantly black and Latino, and another 25 percent come from the west peninsula, which is primarily white. Roughly 40 percent of the students come from District 27, which makes up the outer edge of Queens. Ten percent come from elsewhere in the city, some as far away as Park Slope in Brooklyn and Forest Hills in Queens.
“The school is literally smack in the middle of the peninsula,” O’Connell says, thumping a map of the Rockaways on his office wall. Despite the technology and all the innovative learning strategies, he considers the central mission of Scholars’ Academy “positive integration” in the middle of a socially, economically and religiously diverse community. “The round tables are about equity,” he says. “The triads are about social cooperation.”
“We lost our home. We lost our business. Eight feet of water covered everything,” says Lintia Lyons, whose sixth-grade son, Caleb, had just received his Outstanding Scholar certificate from O’Connell. After the storm, the family bounced from a Hilton to a friend’s home to staying with family to a rental near their property so they could continue down the long road of reconstruction.
Such stories were typical among Scholars’ families and many others across the city, and NYC public schools shut down for an unprecedented five days after the storm. When they reopened, O’Connell’s students were displaced out and around the five boroughs. With the help of Google Docs and cell phone contact with parents, his assistant principals pinpointed the neighborhoods with the highest densities of Scholars’ students. They set up charter bus depots to transport kids from those neighborhoods to temporary schools in East New York. “I didn’t even know how we’d pay for it,” O’Connell says. “But I figured, hey, that’s what FEMA is for.” (FEMA did come through with some funding.)
Yet the night before that first day back, a major miscommunication occurred. The NYC Department of Education sent a notice to parents to have their kids at the Scholars’ Academy site to meet district busses, not at the bus depots the Scholars’ staff had set up and already communicated about to parents.
O’Connell drove to Scholars’ that morning from the Bay Ridge hotel where he’d been living with his wife and children since the storm. Fourteen students had shown up at the school (the majority had gone to the bus depots anyway). It was freezing. A nor’easter was approaching the city.
“I got on the bus with them and asked, ‘How many of you have electricity?’” he recalls. Not a single hand went up. “How many of you have heat?” Not a single hand. “How many of you have hot water?” Not a single hand. “How many of you want to go to school?” Every hand on the bus shot up.
All told, Sandy displaced 30 percent of the school’s staff and 60 percent of its 1,200 students. The Department of Education committed $200 million to repair schools throughout the city, a portion of which went to Scholars’ — but even with such funding the work was slow. Demolition teams brought down walls, chiseled away the rotted gym floor and collected all the school’s trashed paper records in a cargo container by the front door. For their part, the parents, students and teachers worked just as hard, bearing down on the work of teaching and learning in their temporary East New York schools.
Four months later, when the kids finally moved back into the Rockaway Park school building that had become a home away from home for so many, O’Connell handed them all T-shirts. On the front, it read “Scholars Strong,” and on the back, “Rockaway Resilient.”
Michael R. Shea ’10 Arts is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.