School Climate & Safety

Banking on Recovery

By Jessica L. Sandham — December 12, 2001 14 min read
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Displaced from their home in New York's financial district, teachers and students at the High School of Economics and Finance remain focused on their mission.

Patrick Burke need only glance at the photograph he has tacked to the crowded bulletin board in his makeshift principal’s office to recall the innocence he and his students lost three months ago. Tacked above a flier detailing the new schedule for his school, the High School of Economics and Finance, the print features the World Trade Center standing majestically behind a breathtaking view of New York harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

The image predates the day terrorists steered two commercial jets into the trade center’s twin towers, less than two blocks from the school. It captures a time before his students saw people hurling themselves from skyscraper windows. Before he led a well-timed evacuation of the school. And before they all emerged choking on dust in Battery Park, fearing the sound of planes flying above.

The picture of calm is also far different from the days when he moved a traumatized troop of students and staff to shared space at Norman Thomas High School in Midtown Manhattan, more than 50 blocks from the destruction wrought on Sept. 11—and far from the school’s academic and cultural home in the heart of the New York financial district, where students held internships and mingled with the city’s business elite.

Burke is hopeful for a quick return to that home, even though he knows it is irrevocably changed. As the school district works to repair broken windowpanes and purge the ventilation system of dust and debris to make the site habitable again, the 32-year veteran educator and his staff are piecing together their school in other ways.

They are relying on the new bonds forged by the nightmarish morning they shared to reaffirm the school’s focus on business and finance, even as they adjust to a shorter school day in unfamiliar classrooms.

They also improvise lesson plans and solicit donated supplies and textbooks to replace everything left behind. All the while, they keep a watchful eye on students, knowing, better than most, that psychic wounds can take the longest to heal.

“The students have been incredibly resilient, but there’s still a toll that’s taken,” Burke says in his own, matter-of-fact style. “They’ve grown up very quickly.”

While innocence was one of the lasting casualties of the attack, something else has taken root for 17-year-old Adilia Rivas. Seeing the World Trade Center towers turn to dust gave the aspiring nurse a new appreciation for life—and for her school.

A senior at the 700-student High School of Economics and Finance, she is proud of the way her fellow students united following the devastation. She says that seniors reach out to freshmen now, and that former enemies are talking again. And she is grateful to the caring teachers who she says acted like “chickens taking care of their chicks” on Sept. 11.

“They stayed calm,” she says of her school’s teachers. “They didn’t care about the ashes that were falling on them. They were our heroes.”

Still, Rivas adds, she misses her school building. And she especially misses the trade center. The sweeping, open-air plazas around the towers were a hangout for Rivas and her classmates, and a comforting scene they would pass on the way to school every day. It was also a place students visited on field trips.

“It was our back yard,” says Rivas, who shares her principal’s hope of returning to the school. Echoing the longing of her classmates, she says of the trade center: “To this day, I cry about that building.”

While the circumstances surrounding Sept. 11 are unlike any that could have been envisioned, Rivas’ feeling is the kind of connection to the financial district that Phyllis Frankfort was hoping for when she helped found the public magnet school in 1993.

After scouting out 40 possible homes for the school, Frankfort, who had worked for the school district and helped it start new magnet programs, decided that the 10-story building, leased from nearby New York University and just two blocks from the trade center, was the perfect place.

‘I wanted students to feel, breathe, and live economics and finance.’

“I wanted it to be in the heart of Wall Street,” says Frankfort, now the president of Merging Business and Academics, a nonprofit organization based here. “I wanted students to feel, breathe, and live economics and finance.” During their four years at the school, students must complete a series of requirements designed to give them a sense of the work being done by their financial-district neighbors. The students, who come to the high school from all five boroughs of New York City and bring a range of ability levels, take “Welcome to Wall Street” and “Economics and the World of Finance,” in addition to more traditional courses.

Wednesdays are “Dress for Success” days, when the students arrive decked out in professional attire and take seminars taught by local professionals. The school also asks students to join the working world. They serve 100 hours in community service and 120 hours at an unpaid internship, in addition to completing a paid internship the summer between their junior and senior years.

The school’s business orientation is one of the reasons Maya Madzharova originally decided to enroll, even though it meant commuting 30 minutes from her home in Queens. It’s also one of the reasons she decided to stick with the High School of Economics and Finance and its temporary site, while some of her peers opted to leave after the traumas of Sept. 11. On a recent afternoon, the sophomore collated reports during her unpaid internship at Salomon Smith Barney, a major financial-consulting firm based in Midtown Manhattan. She has attended the school since her family immigrated to New York from Bulgaria a year ago.

Like many of her classmates, however, she has struggled at times with the current arrangements. Because HSEF students now share space with Norman Thomas students, they attend class from 1 to 6 p.m. to avoid overlapping morning schedules with their hosts. And classes have been cut from 50 minutes to 40 minutes. By the time Madzharova gets home on some nights, it’s already 7:30.

Still, while she feels a pull to return to her school’s home, a part of her remains uncertain.

“Everybody wants to go back, but part of them kind of doesn’t,” Madzharova reflects. “On one hand, it would be so good, because it’s our school. On the other hand, most of us don’t even want to go down there right now because it’s not the same.”

Perhaps as important the school’s location and curriculum, Frankfort says, is its community of supporters from the business world. Since its inception, donated time and support from executives at various New York companies have enriched the school. Those ties have served as a sort of safety net since Sept. 11.

“The school was designed so that it was dependent upon external agencies,” says Frankfort. “That has turned out to be a wonderful thing.” In the days immediately following the attack, teachers and parent volunteers took the first steps toward rebuilding. They formed a phone tree, calling around to check up on students, and took note of which students sounded particularly shaky so that they could receive swift follow-up help.

Staff members reported to work at their temporary digs at Norman Thomas High on Sept. 17. The students came three days later. Having abandoned lesson plans, textbooks, and other school supplies during their evacuation, the staff spent the first days back grappling with needs for items as small as scissors and staple removers, and as large as computers and photocopiers.

To help ease the transition, the city’s board of education has paid for supplies and repairs.

The school’s business friends stepped up as well, chipping in an estimated $500,000 in materials and financial support. The contributions covered everything from televisions and VCRs for classrooms, to notebooks and pencils for students who had shucked off their bookbags somewhere along the escape route.

“It was an outpouring of support,” says Frankfort, who helped coordinate the relief. “It took four weeks of phone calls. The teachers didn’t even have paper to write on that first day.”

Jeffrey R. Hoops, a partner at the New York-based accounting and professional-services firm Ernst & Young who also serves on the school’s advisory board and executive council, says the company rushed to help the High School of Economics and Finance along with other schools in Lower Manhattan. Using contributions from employees and partners, the firm gave $20,000 to each of the city’s eight schools displaced by the attack.

“The school is going through a difficult time now,” Hoops says of the finance magnet school. “Having to share a high school with another student body isn’t the easiest thing. We heard there was an immediate need for cash for things like supplies and books, and thought this would be a way to get things done.”

And gifts to the school keep pouring in. Calculators. Tickets to the “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Music Hall. Student memberships at a nearby YMCA.

Boxes upon boxes of donated books line the walls in a room at Norman Thomas High that HSEF teachers have transformed into a combination storage facility-gathering place.

Teacher Pamela King found that helping to solicit book donations met a variety of needs. Not only did the work figure in as a part of her own healing, but she also knew that many people would welcome the opportunity to lend a helping hand—to feel they had made a drop of difference in a sea of tragedy.

‘It's really about storytelling. People are interested in our story. It's an amazing story.’

“It’s really about storytelling,” King adds of the various calls she’s made to companies, seeking donations. “People are interested in our story. It’s an amazing story.”

There are dozens of terrifying, hopeful, and painfully true stories from this one school.

And King has one of her own. She led her English-as-a-second-language students to nearby Battery Park during the evacuation, only to be overwhelmed by a blinding blanket of dust when the first tower toppled. She paid a street vendor $20 for bottles of water that students passed from friend to friend to wash the dust from their dry mouths.

Or experiences such as that of Principal Burke, who knew to keep the students inside and sheltered from debris shed by the burning buildings—until he learned from police officers that the buildings might fall.

That was when he led an orderly evacuation of the school, calmly announcing the route students and teachers should take to safety and going floor by floor to make sure no one was left behind. He ordered the school’s secretaries to leave, too, even though they asked to stay. The phones were ringing off the hook with calls from frantic parents, and the secretaries wanted to be there to reassure them that the children were out of the building.

Then, there were students like Maya Madzharova. She joined a group of students who jumped on a ferry for a 20-minute ride to Staten Island when the first tower collapsed.

Somehow, on the other side of the New York harbor, teachers from her school were waiting to lead them to a nearby high school, and shelter in the gymnasium. With bridges and tunnels closed, “we thought we were going to be there for days,” Madzharova recalls. Fortunately, they were not. Madzharova was elated when her father arrived at the Staten Island high school, at midnight, to take her home.

And, of course there was science teacher John O’Sullivan.

Teacher John O'Sullivan offered his small, one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment as a place of refuge for 30 students from the High School of Economics and Finance.

After students went in all directions in the confusion that ensued as the towers fell and Battery Park filled with dust, O’Sullivan groped his way to the ferry station. He found pockets of students in the chaos, then stood on one of the benches and yelled, “All New York City high school students come with me!” Hours later, after a five-mile trudge uptown, O’Sullivan offered his small, one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment as a place of refuge for 30 students from the High School of Economics and Finance.

There, they decompressed by watching videos and eating pizza as they waited for their parents. O’Sullivan did his best to ignore the fact that his neighbor downstairs called the building superintendent seven times to complain about the noise. One student stayed the night and went home the next morning. Another was given a spontaneous birthday party, complete with store-bought cupcakes.

“Luckily, I had some candles,” O’Sullivan says. “So we sang him ‘Happy Birthday.’”

With these and many other stories etched in their minds, the teachers and students still must focus on the job at hand. But, some days, it’s just plain hard. In addition to shortened classes, students have had to adjust to a different school environment. The new site is larger and older than the one they left behind. They now have to pass through metal detectors as they enter the building.

Hanging over it all is a sense of uncertainty about when, or even if, they will return to their home turf. As a result, O’Sullivan says, “academics have been tough.”

“It was incredibly hard to get them to focus in the first few weeks, understandably so,” says O’Sullivan. “I’ve had to go slower because the focus in the classroom is harder.” Burke, the principal, is hopeful that students will make up some ground through tutoring sessions on Saturdays and before school. But with fewer minutes of class time, he says, it will be next to impossible to make up for all the time lost. Still, he says, “we will be prepared in time for the regents’ exams,” the critical state tests that will be administered in May.

Teachers say they sometimes feel as if they're caught in a sort of purgatory.

Teachers, meanwhile, say they sometimes feel as if they’re caught in a sort of purgatory. They know they’re not happy in their temporary setting. Then again, they’re not so sure that they want to return to a school building that’s just down the block from acres of destruction, a place that would serve as a daily reminder of everything they’ve overcome.

“In a sense, it’s like we’re still running from that devastation, because we’re trying to get back to normalcy,” says mathematics teacher Laroma L. Dukes, her eyes welling with tears. “The kids say, ‘If we could just lift that building up and put it in another area, we’d like to do that.’ ”

Now, the cool-headed principal who guided his charges to safety faces the challenge of leading hesitant students and teachers back. Burke is optimistic, though, that the students and staff will be back in the building by late January, at the start of the spring semester.

To help smooth the way, he is planning a retreat for teachers to help them prepare for the return. He hopes the retreat, along with planned improvements to the school, will help everyone feel more secure about going home.

“When you see it for the first time, it’s a shock,” Burke says of the area around the school. “But one acclimates to a situation. It’s possible to live with it.”

Even now, signs abound that students and staff members are making the best of a difficult situation by banding together and preserving the special culture of the school, regardless of where it’s housed. Keeping proper decorum, and a sense of humor, are also part of the job.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, HSEF students are filing into Norman Thomas High School at 1 p.m., ready to start their day and dressed for success. Well, almost everyone is dressed for success.

“That skirt is too short!” Assistant Principal Irma Lederer calls to a girl trying to slip through the metal detector unnoticed. “It’s lovely, but it’s too short.”

The teachers say they're more united. There are no more petty squabbles. They're just so grateful they were able to lean on each other that morning.

Meanwhile, Patrick Burke fiddles with the tie hung loosely around his neck, as he tries to show a sheepish-looking freshman boy the step-by-step art of tie tying. “Don’t choke yourself, but move it a little higher,” he says as he demonstrates with his own tie.

Later, in an afternoon seminar led by an executive from a headhunting firm, the students listen to their instructor outline the basics of crafting a résumé. In a nearby class on ballroom dancing, the students couple up boy-boy and girl-girl to practice the tango.

“We have to snap them out of their hip-hop tendencies,” teases instructor Eric M. Gernant, who also teaches social studies at the school.

The students still get distracted on occasion, but teachers and administrators say they’re not unruly. Since Sept. 11, they seem more respectful, and more united as a student body.

Burke smiles as he recounts a recent assembly when students gave him an unusually warm reception. “My students are generally polite, but when I spoke with them this time, they let me know they were a community,” he says. “They were applauding themselves and their survival and their sense of unity.”

Senior Adilia Rivas confirms the principal’s account, but offers some slightly different context. “We always booed him before,” she says of the typical ribbing between administrators and students anywhere. “But we appreciated him staying and making sure we all got out. When we came back, we all clapped for him.”

The teachers say they’re also more united. There are no more petty squabbles, they say. They’re just so grateful they were able to lean on each other that morning, to have colleagues who know what they’ve been through.

“I can’t describe to my family what it was like that day, but I don’t have to explain it to my co-workers,” history teacher Scott Schaffner says. “We’re war buddies now.”

As Schaffner speaks, a student walks up to him and hands him a flier. Amazingly, when the students have so many concerns and distractions of their own, the flier announces a student-sponsored canned-food drive for people in area shelters. Schaffner promises the student that he’ll pass the flier out in class.

“We May Be Displaced,” it says. “But Hopefully Our Spirits Are Not.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Banking on Recovery


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