Displaced staff, students return to charter school

Kasey Wehrheim, a third-grade inclusion teacher at Riverhead Charter School, straightens out books Tuesday for a classroom library in the school’s modular building, which was badly damaged in a fire. The kids will be returning soon for the first time since February.

Teacher Jodi Gallagher said she lost nine years’ worth of teaching materials when a fire badly damaged her classroom at Riverhead Charter School one evening in February.

“It was traumatizing,” she said of the dozens of destroyed books, supplies and games she had purchased with her own money over the years. “The kids were so upset.”

But six months later, the first-grade teacher was decorating the freshly painted walls of her renovated first-grade classroom with dozens of donated supplies, ready to start the new year.

The alternative public school’s staff has been busy this week preparing to reopen the building when classes start Tuesday. The building had been closed to students since the fire.

Two classrooms were destroyed and others were affected by smoke and water that poured through the school’s modular building when a faulty air conditioner sparked the Feb. 23 blaze. The historic main building, located at the same campus on Route 25 in Calverton, was not damaged. No one was injured. Classes were held at St. John the Evangelist’s Riverhead campus for the remainder of the year.

This week, the school’s teachers were busy moving bulletin boards and desks — items that were put in storage at the end of the year — back into their classrooms.

Teacher Kasey Wehrheim, whose room sustained the worst of the damage, said the generosity of the community after the blaze was unbelievable.

“I was able to get a whole new library set,” she said. The materials were donated from community members and school supply retailers. “I got an outpouring of support,” she said.

Principal Dorothy Porteus, who described the six-month ordeal as the most stressful time of her career, said the building’s reopening brought her a welcome sigh of relief.

“I am just so excited to know that the contractors got us back into the building in a timely manner,” she said.

She said the renovation process was involved, first because settling everything with the school’s insurance company took some time and also because water damage from the hoses spread to other classrooms. A large portion of the modular building has been gutted and remodeled.

Ms. Porteus could not say how much the total damage cost the school, as it is still settling with its insurance company. But, she said, the school ended up paying for some of the new flooring and for some of the things that were damaged in the move. The school also had to pay rent at St. John’s from March through June.

Ms. Porteus said the charter school still has long-term plans to build a permanent building in the back of the property, something she hopes will mostly be funded through fundraising.

The biggest challenge so far has been sorting through the things in storage and trying to piece the classrooms back together.

“It [was like] a scavenger hunt,” Ms. Porteus said.

The blaze has not deterred new applicants at the alternative public school, which draws students from several districts in Suffolk County. Enrollment at the school has grown from 235 students to an estimated 260, a number that changes nearly every day Ms. Porteus said.

“We’ve had a huge response for families that want to come here,” she said. “We’re bursting at the seams.”

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