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Trip to School a Biblical One For Students in Brighton Beach

By Sonja Sharp | November 9, 2012 10:05am

CROWN HEIGHTS — In the beginning, their world flooded. Now, parents in storm-ravaged Brighton Beach are facing another biblical struggle, one father Ricky Garces summed up in just one word: Exodus.

"My wife was the one who went this morning with the exodus trying to make it here," the frustrated dad said, as he waited to pick up his son and daughter from their new temporary school on Thursday. "Yesterday they didn't want to take the chance — my kids are traumatized."

Nearly two weeks after floodwaters swamped his home in Brighton Beach and inundated his children's elementary school, Garces and his fellow P.S. 253 parents — most of them recent immigrants from Mexico, Pakistan and the former Soviet Union — must shepherd students to I.S. 246 on the border of Crown Heights and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. It's a nearly two-hour trek for which the city has provided them with free MetroCards — but little else.

Of the nearly 800 children at the school, only 104 made it to class on Thursday. Before the storm, attendance was 97 percent.

"Many of our families cannot make it out there," said parent coordinator Gina Dacchille. "It's an unfamiliar neighborhood, and it's an hour-and-a-half away." 

Ninety percent of P.S. 253 students qualify for free lunch, and 30 percent are still learning English. Yet the school is among the highest achieving in South Brooklyn's District 21, where just one other elementary school earned an "A" grade on the city's most recent report card.

Now, that success could be eroding from underneath them.

Though residents in Brighton Beach fared better than their neighbors in Coney Island and Sea Gate, the families of P.S. 253 were hit especially hard.

Most live in the low-lying bungalows behind Brighton Beach Avenue that to earlier immigrants recalled the Black Sea beaches of Soviet-era Odessa, but now house multiple families from Chinantla and Karachi on every floor. Since Hurricane Sandy struck, the basement apartments are virtually unlivable, and many on the upper floors still languish without heat or power.

"A lot of our families live in the basement apartments, so those families have really suffered," Dacchille said. "Those apartments were gutted. They have no heat, no electricity, no hot water."

A block away — but a world apart — another school is also struggling.

The Mazel School, a Jewish parochial program popular among South Brooklyn's Russian immigrants, has seen its 150 students scattered since the storm hit last Monday. Preschoolers have been relocated to the school's upper floors, while older children have been split between a synagogue near Kings Highway and a Russian immigrant outreach center in Crown Heights. 

"We were only able to find temporary facilities spread out over Brooklyn," said mom Anna Ashurov. "My daughter is sitting on a carpet in the shul during circle time. We need a facility where the kids can all go back to normal." 

Like their neighbors at P.S. 253, parents at the Mazel School know they won't get back to normal anytime soon. The entire building, save for the fourth-grade classroom, was inundated with floodwater from the storm surge. Brand-new materials were destroyed. Dramatic pictures of the school's soaked Torah scroll unfurled across the synagogue quickly spread over social media.

Yet, parents there insist their school has something worth saving.

"The school is just so popular in the community — we have a 40-percent increase of enrollment year over year," Ashurov said. "It’s just so special, that’s why we really really care about it."

That's exactly the same way P.S. 253 families describe their school.

"It makes it harder," Dacchille said of the storm. "But for our school, nothing is impossible."