Down But Not Out, Patched Dade Schools Open

By Mark Pitsch — September 23, 1992 10 min read
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Students, parents, teachers, school employees, and Dade County school officials, full of spirit and vigor, stared down adversity last week as they opened schools three weeks after enduring the fury of Hurricane Andrew.

They faced circuitous bus routes; damaged and makeshift facilities; homeless and hungry students, teachers, and employees; doubled-up schools and classrooms; sometimes-frail emotional states; and what will doubtless be a yearlong struggle to regain and maintain normalcy.

But schools in southern Dade County joined their northern-county counterparts and began classes Sept. 14, serving notice that they are down, but not out.

“It’s really important for us to move back, because people say, ‘Oh, the school’s back, it’s O.K. for us now,’'' said Rosemary Fuller, the principal of Perrine Elementary School.

“I was determined that my kids have some consistency,’' said Janice Junkin, who flew in with her children from Natchez, Miss., the day before so that the three youngsters could attend Coral Reef Elementary School on the first day. “For your children, you’ll do just about everything.’'

The Junkins lost their home. So did Merced Canales.

“When I come here, I feel at home because I don’t have my home,’' said Ms. Canales, a food-service worker at Coral Reef. “It is good to see the students and the people that I know and find out everyone’s O.K.’'

Military-Strength Clean-Up

Dade County schools opened two weeks late and only after frenetic repairs carried out by Army, Navy, and National Guard troops and district maintenance personnel.

About 200 Navy “Seabees,’' for example, spent the weekend before last week’s opening clearing water, sludge, and damaged insulation from Homestead High School, and repairing its roof after heavy rains undid earlier repairs. The school, with leaks still in several classrooms and without any carpeting, opened on schedule but with only a little more than one-third of its 2,500 students on hand.

Even after school opened, the troops remained and could be found driving school buses and directing traffic outside schools.

But though open at last, the schools clearly were in less than optimal condition.

Ten schools were considered too badly damaged to open, and their students were redistributed to other schools, placing a strain on those facilities. Unusable classrooms meant some classes had to double up in one room, soggy books and materials meant teachers had to modify their methods, and a barrage of media interest lent the proceedings a bit of festivity.

Confusion reigned as bus drivers, some of them military personnel, were forced to negotiate their routes in early-morning darkness on streets lacking traffic lights or street signs. Parents--caught in heavy traffic or unaware that school starting times had changed--showed up with their children hours after school began. Many parents also packed their children off with lunches, unaware that the district plans to provide all children in affected areas with free breakfast and lunch for at least two weeks.

Still, enough of a routine was established for school officials to declare the day a success.

“If nothing changes before five o’clock, this will be the most satisfying day in my professional life,’' said Superintendent Octavio Visiedo as he toured Coral Reef with Gov. Lawton Chiles of Florida at midday.

Doubling Up

Arden Dilley had just finished taking his Coral Reef 5th-grade students on a 15-minute tour of their school grounds that first day. They saw the central air-conditioning unit wrenched off one building, never to be found. The uprooted trees. The crushed baseball batting cage. The water damage to portable classrooms. The newly established Army communications command center.

“They’re all curious anyway, so it’s better to explain and tell them that it’s all coming back, better than ever,’' said Mr. Dilley.

“Actually,’' he confided after the tour, “that was just to get out of the cafeteria.’'

The cafeteria, where the school’s five 5th-grade sections were meeting, was being reroofed, and the smell of hot tar proved unbearable at times. And the noise of five classes separated only by chalkboards--the portable classrooms regularly used by that grade level were undergoing repairs--was fraying some nerves.

Other teachers followed suit and took their classes outdoors.

Such improvisation was the order of the day, and set the standard by which the next several weeks, and perhaps the entire school year, will be governed.

Coral Reef is sharing facilities with Perrine, which lost its roof and some of its walls, as well as books, instructional materials, and computers.

Daylight had not yet arrived when teachers began milling around Coral Reef, a complex of nine one-story concrete buildings and a couple of portable ones connected by patio walkways. They were there to inspect the repairs to their classrooms, greet each other and the arriving students, and prepare their materials before classes began at 7:15 A.M.

School was starting early because it was ending early--at 12:15 P.M. Fifteen minutes later, school was to begin for students from Perrine.

While district officials said that some doubling up may end this week, and that they have ordered 600 portable classrooms to be placed on the grounds of severely damaged schools such as Perrine, Coral Reef and Perrine officials said they may be doubling up for the rest of the year.

“My main role is to make everyone remember that it’s better to give than to receive’’ commented Joe Carbia, Coral Reef’s principal. “We feel very fortunate that we’re in a position to help.’'

First Day at Coral Reef

By 6:30 A.M., Coral Reef students started to arrive. They were greeted with hugs and kisses from Mr. Carbia, other employees, and parent and Dade County school volunteers.

“Have you lost your home?’' the principal asked one parent. Her child, wearing a T-shirt reading “I survived Hurricane Andrew,’' looked up and waited for the reply.

Meanwhile, Debbie Brandes had just dropped off her 5th grader and her 2nd grader. She had not seen them this chipper in weeks.

“This is the most excited they’ve been in a while because they thought they’d see some old friends, even though some of them aren’t here now,’' she said. “I’m just waiting to see if my next-door neighbor is here. I haven’t seen her yet.’'

Ms. Brandes’s home is severely damaged and lacks electricity, phone service, and running water. She had been driving an hour and a half to Boca Raton for hot showers and sleeping accommodations, but she recently had rented an apartment 45 minutes away from the school and her neighborhood.

As Ms. Brandes’s children were settling into their classrooms, Suzanne Levitats was preparing her makeshift classroom. A 5th-grade teacher, she was in the cafeteria.

“Coming back to school is the greatest thing for me, personally,’' said Ms. Levitats, who was forced to move in with her parents until her home can be repaired.

On the other side of the blackboard, Mr. Dilley was thinking in the long term. “We’re just at the right socioeconomic level to push the schools,’' he said. “The lower-income areas don’t have the resources, and if we were in the richer areas we’d just pack up and move away.’'

Many Students Missing

Pack up and move is apparently what many people--rich and poor--have done since the storm struck South Florida on Aug. 24. (See Education Week, Sept. 9 and Sept. 16, 1992.)

Dade County officials said 250,000 of the expected 312,000 students showed up for school on the first day last week, with the counts increasing by the tens of thousands by the end of the week. In the devastated southern part of the county, as many as 80 percent of students did not show up.

At Coral Reef, 707 of 1,250 registered students attended the first day; about 20 percent of Perrine’s nearly 800 students showed up that day.

“We were expecting one-third to be missing,’' Ms. Fuller of Perrine said. “I don’t think one-third showed up.’'

Whether they were in tent cities set up by military troops, in their homes, or had moved away was unclear. Perrine school officials spent much of the latter part of the week trying to track down absentee students and the school supplies, food, and clothing it was suspected they would need to be able to attend school.

For them and for other students, county officials and teachers'-union representatives are organizing clothing and shoe drives. On the first day of school at Homestead Middle School, for example, Pat Tornillo, the president of the Florida Education Association-United, delivered 2,000 pairs of shoes donated by the Nike sports-apparel company, clothing contributed by the union, and toys sent from Connecticut.

About 3,000 students have enrolled in nearby Broward County schools.

School officials are also on the lookout for absentee teachers. Several teachers across the county did not report for work last week, officials said, but they did not have an exact count.

Special care is also being taken to monitor the well-being of teachers, many of whom have lost their homes. Psychologists are being made available to schools in the hardest-hit areas.

Clarice Warner, a Coral Reef teacher who lost her home, said it is important that teachers admit when they are having problems.

“We could snap,’' Ms. Warner said, “and we need to realize that the children still need us in the same capacity as before.’'

About 10 of 50 Coral Reef teachers lost their homes, Mr. Carbia estimated. The vast majority of the 45 Perrine teachers lost theirs, Ms. Fuller said.

Making the Transition

Many Perrine students, some of whom had been bused in from morning day care, had already arrived for opening day by the time Coral Reef youngsters were dismissed, creating a bit of commotion at the transition.

The fact that Governor Chiles was planning to arrive at about that time, that construction crews were repairing sidewalks near the school, and that the school sits on a heavily traveled artery made even busier by school buses, construction equipment, and parents prompted one parent to say, “With all this extra stuff going on, one wonders if it’s even safe for the kids.’'

But once everything had settled down and the Governor had come and gone, Perrine students got busy.

Typically, teachers from both schools began their classes by allowing students to discuss their feelings about the hurricane and its effect on their lives. Some of them drew pictures or wrote stories.

While teachers said it helped students to talk about how the hurricane affected them, the novelty of returning to school wore off quickly.

“I saw more problems after the first day,’' said Lois Schumacher, a Coral Reef guidance counselor. “The first day was smoother than the second day and [the third day].’' She noted that “normal, routine kinds of things seem to be difficult for [students].’'

Students also got a chance to renew old friendships or to develop new ones.

Jasmine Barahona joined Ms. Levitats’s class because her old school, Holy Rosary Catholic School, will not be repaired for several months. Attending Coral Reef, she said, is “kind of strange.’'

LeAnne Velez, a Perrine 3rd grader, is also new to her school. Accepted into the school’s performing-arts magnet program, LeAnne and her mother, Stella, are now unsure how the program will fare this year.

Some teachers said the disruption to the schools is helping to drive their curriculum.

Mr. Dilley told his students that their science instruction will include much study of the environment. As he and his students passed the adjacent Coral Reef Park, called a “graveyard for trees’’ by one observer, Mr. Dilley pointed out that he hoped the debris stacked there would be burned elsewhere.

If not, he said, the school’s drinking water could be contaminated by metal residue that sinks into the soil following such a burn.

Amy Gonzalez said her Perrine 2nd graders will get a chance to design their own school. She said the students know their school is damaged, but she has not disclosed the extent of the problems.

And Ms. Levitats’s class discussed the new words they had learned over the previous several weeks. Words such as condemn, adjuster, insulation, insurance, and sue.

A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 1992 edition of Education Week as Down But Not Out, Patched Dade Schools Open


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