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Teachers and volunteers organize donations before school starts at P.S. 38 on the Staten Island borough of New York Monday. Many schools in the New York area reopened after closure from Hurricane Sandy last week. (MICHAEL KIRBY SMITH/NYT)
Teachers and volunteers organize donations before school starts at P.S. 38 on the Staten Island borough of New York Monday. Many schools in the New York area reopened after closure from Hurricane Sandy last week. (MICHAEL KIRBY SMITH/NYT)

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Students should help Sandy victims, not attend school Add to ...

Each day, the New York region attempts to ease the suffering and mayhem caused by Hurricane Sandy and return to a period of normalcy. Mass transit systems are slowly awakening after days of being paralyzed. Power lines are being restored. And fuel arteries are becoming unclogged.

In these ailing and grieving times, there are a few flickers of light – stories of extraordinary human beings. A Flatbush, N.Y. man walked more than a mile in the hurricane to save a litter of newborn kittens. Newark Mayor Cory Booker invited victims into his own home. Richard Nicotra, a Staten Island hotel owner, refused to evict hurricane victims from their rooms.

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Still, an estimated $50-billion in damages were caused, thousands have lost their homes and millions are still without food, clean water, and heat. We certainly have a long way to go.

On Monday, most schools in New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey resumed operations. Many children returned to schools that are structurally damaged and without heat.

Is this is the right move when millions of Americans are still stranded? This is my plea : Close down schools for the rest of the week and bring students and teachers to disaster relief and volunteer centres to help the hurricane victims. Why? My response: Why not?

First, the fuel intended to heat schools can be re-allocated into distribution centres, soup kitchens, and shelters.

Second and more importantly, we have a perfect learning opportunity at our fingertips to teach young people about the importance of community service and awareness, both of which are fundamentally lacking in American public schools. Across the Tri-State area, organizations are helplessly scrambling for more volunteers. For example, at Randall’s Island Park, more than 50 volunteers are needed for a park clean up. At City Harvest Mobile markets on Staten Island, blankets, food, and water bottles aren’t going to be handed out by themselves. In Far Rockaway, organizers’ hands are tied as they search for canvassers to go door to door to deliver supplies.

Thus, classes of students accompanied by their teachers can attend to specific disaster areas. The most important sources of knowledge are not schools, but rather informal institutions like community centres and museums. By participating in relief activities, students are learning by doing.

Hurricane relief is also service and project-based learning at its best. Curriculum can include spearheading a letter-writing campaign to call on oil companies to pay for relief, creating an app to help drivers find gas stations that are open, or building a simulated model of a New York City levee system. What these three ideas have in common is that they are real-world experiences and grounded in critical thinking and collaboration.

One manifesto goes like this: “We [need to] start creating school as a dynamic social engine for entire towns and cities that drive every citizen toward a higher, greater good: the public interest.” For far too long, we have treated schools like citadels from ancient times, isolated from the outside world. John le Carré once quipped, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” Imagine if the city is the school.

As a high-school student, I would love to witness millions of young people go door to door and hand out food and water and blankets, clean up debris, and organize food and clothing drives. My generation is crying out for opportunities to be a part of something bigger than themselves. This would stamp their identities onto rebuilding these devastated communities. This is our call to action. There’s no age limit to partake in the recovery effort.

Sure, if millions of children go to school they will have more hours of instruction added to their bullion, but the opportunity cost is tremendously high. Helping with relief efforts may very well become these kids’ best learning experience of their lives.

Nikhil Goyal is the 17-year-old author of One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School, which was published by the Alternative Education Resource Organization in September 2012 and offers ideas to revolutionize education. He is a student at Syosset High School in New York.

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