Displaced by Sandy, students go to school in Wildwood

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WILDWOOD — The classrooms in the Wildwood school district have a few new faces after Hurricane Sandy damaged a number of schools throughout New Jersey.
Wildwood School Superintendent Dennis Anderson said that six students joined the Wildwood school district from the Seaside Heights area. Anderson said currently one elementary student, two middle school students and three high school students started classes last week.  

“It was the first day of school for those kids all over again,” said Renee McGaffney, the school social worker that serves as the district’s homeless liaison.
McGaffney went with the school nurse to the various motels that are now home to about 150 people who arrived in town from the Toms River and Seaside Heights area after Sandy destroyed their homes. They have been staying at the Blue Palms, StarLux, Esplanade Suites, the Castaways Motel or Days Inn as FEMA-registered evacuees.
“In some cases we had brochures about attending the Wildwood school district, sometimes the manager would direct us to the rooms that families with school-age children were staying in and sometimes we just found people in the lobbies,” she said.
“They were excited to see us,” McGaffney noted. “The parents have been taking things one day at a time. Something like getting their kids back into school and back into a routine was a big step.”
After registration was completed, McGaffney said the middle and high school students were a little nervous to go to a new school.
“The middle school students especially were apprehensive on their first day,” she said. “It’s a big deal to start a new school. And on top of that, they didn’t know anyone, they don’t know the area and they are dealing with everything that happened to their community. It is a lot for a kid. It would be a lot for anyone to deal with.”
But Anderson and McGaffney both credited the Wildwood students and faculty for being welcoming.
“Our school community is very accepting,” Anderson said. “That is just one of our strengths. Our students immediately treated the new students like part of our family.”
Anderson also said that the community has been generous with donating school supplies, book bags, clothing and anything the students may need.
“Any time there is a disaster or a tragedy like this, the entire island rallies and people give so much,” Anderson said.
Donations also came from other schools like Woodstown High School in Salem County and Pitman High School and Rowan University in Gloucester County.
McGaffney said that the students have told her that they have enjoyed their time at school, particularly the small class sizes.
“Most of the students came from very large schools,” she said and noted that the middle and high students came from Central Regional School District, which has an enrollment much larger than Wildwood.
“They liked meeting their new classmates and getting to know them,” she added.
Anderson said that the students are technically classified as homeless.
Under state regulations, districts that take in homeless or displaced students can charge the cost of educating them back to the hometown district. Anderson said right now they are just concerned with getting children in school.
The state Department of Education has been working with district officials and students can be transferred electronically through the NJSMART student database system.
McGaffney said most of the students’ records have arrived with no issues. But some schools, like Hugh J. Boyd Elementary School, which is located in Seaside Heights and where one student is from, had major damage and McGaffney doesn’t know if getting those records will ever be possible.
According to department figures, 92 percent of all school districts, and 89 percent of all schools will be ready for students this week. But even though the schools are ready, many of the families’ homes are unlivable due to damage or construction.  
McGaffney said her job will be to work with the student and their families until they find permanent housing. And for some of those people displaced by the storm, McGaffney said they don’t know if they’ll be able to return home or make a new start somewhere else.
At least two families she said are planning on making Wildwood their permanent home.
“They said that the Wildwoods remind them a lot of Seaside, a lot of their home, and they are looking at a fresh start here because there is very little options for them to return to,” McGaffney said.

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