School Climate & Safety

N.Y.C. Schools Share Space; 8 Still Closed

By Robert C. Johnston — September 26, 2001 6 min read

While their schools in Lower Manhattan remained closed, some 8,000 New York City students who were near ground zero of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack there returned to classes at temporary sites last week.

Students and teachers from eight schools that were either damaged or have been used by rescue workers reported to temporary facilities—typically doubling up with other schools—on Sept. 20.

The arrangement could last as long as three months at some sites, school officials said. Schools serving most of the city system’s 1.1 million students remained open the day of the attack on the World Trade Center, then closed for a day before reopening Sept. 13. Teachers and students from the eight displaced schools welcomed last week’s reunion.

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“I cannot wait to see them,” teacher Phyllis Blackman Hurwitz said of her 4th and 5th graders from Public School 89, many of whom she had led to safety as buildings crumbled behind them. “That’s how I can heal,” she said. “I can’t even begin to feel normal until I see them.”

But the logistical challenges of merging schools quickly produced strains.

In one of the most taxing arrangements, 3,000 students from Stuyvesant High School are going to Brooklyn Technical High School, nearly doubling the population there and extending the school day to 6 p.m. for Stuyvesant students.

“It’s been a very confusing time for people,” said Jukay Hsu, a senior and the president of Stuyvesant’s student union. “Everyone wants to get back into our building. We want to be back in our environment.”

Also displaced were the High School for Economics and Finance and the High School for Leadership and Public Service, which were a block from the World Trade Center.

Emotional Challenges

Last week also saw an outpouring of aid and sympathy—including school visits by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige—aimed at helping schools in New York City and the surrounding areas, as well as in northern Virginia near the terrorist- damaged Pentagon.

Intimately entwined in efforts to get everyone in New York back in class, however, was the foreboding sense of new emotional challenges, particularly as parents and others missing in the devastation are named.

“Suddenly, my role as a teacher is something more,” Ms. Hurwitz said. “I’m going to be trying to make my students feel good when I don’t feel good, and make them feel safe when I don’t feel safe.”

The readiness to get back to the rigors of education was especially apparent in the reactions to news that the city’s highly regarded Stuyvesant High would merge for a month with 4,700-student Brooklyn Tech, a friendly rival whose stiff test-score requirements for admission are lower than those of Stuyvesant.

Leaders of the Stuyvesant High Parents’ Association adopted a resolution voicing their misgivings. They also wondered aloud if their school, which has served as a staging area for rescue work, couldn’t be handed back to the students in the coming days.

“We are concerned about the safety of the children. They were on the front line of this war,” said the association’s president, Marilena Christodoulou. “We’re concerned that putting [so many] people in that [Brooklyn Tech] building is not a good thing.”

School officials responded to those worries over an initial schedule that would have had students from both schools crowded together in the building for three hours. During that time, 40 classes of Stuyvesant students would have been placed in Brooklyn Tech’s cavernous auditorium, a move parents protested.

Under a compromise reached last week, Brooklyn Tech students will go to school from 7:15 a.m to 1:20 p.m., while Stuyvesant students will go from 1:20 p.m. to 6 p.m. Stuyvesant parents remained concerned about the time it will take students, who come from all parts of the city, to get home at night.

Class times also were cut from 40 minutes to 30 minutes under the new schedule.

As they filed out of school last week under police supervision, several Brooklyn Tech students had mixed reactions to the change, though most maintained a positive outlook. The day went smoothly, according to students.

“We all have to wake up a lot earlier,” said Sani Javed, a Brooklyn Tech junior. “It’s inconvenient for a lot of people, but we welcome the Stuyvesant kids.” As for the rivalry between the two academic powerhouses, Samir Mian, another Brooklyn Tech junior, said that it is “overhyped.” He added: “There are a lot of clubs we could do together. It would be great if we could collaborate.”

Lee D. McCaskill, the principal of Brooklyn Tech, said in an e-mail response to queries about the situation that coordinating the program was “hectic but rewarding” and added that “the friendly athletic and academic rivalries are set aside to help our colleagues from across the river.”

‘Horrible Stories’

Schools farther away from the attack site in Lower Manhattan were also dealing with the effects of the violence, particularly as the news of likely fatalities hit home.

City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy underscored the point in a Sept. 20 letter to district superintendents and department heads. After congratulating school leaders and teachers for their heroic responses, he cautioned: “In the weeks ahead, we will need to pull together even more. Once the rescue efforts dissipate and the anguish of waiting turns into the recognition of loss, only then can the grieving process begin.”

Reality has already hit home at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a high school in Brooklyn that was part of a community vigil for Marlyn Garcia, 21, the school’s 1998 valedictorian.

Ms. Garcia, a favorite with the school’s staff, worked on the 100th floor of Tower 2 of the World Trade Center as a file clerk for a corporate tax-accounting firm. She is presumed dead.

“This was a very young woman who was very much part of the school and community,” said Frances Lucerna, the executive director of El Puente, the community organization that runs the close-knit, 150-student public school.

Throughout the city, educators have become sounding boards for students dealing with new and evolving reactions to the terrorism.

“I heard horrible stories about neighbors and what they’ve heard,” said Ann Paddu, a 6th grade teacher at Booker T. Washington Junior High School. “The first thing we have to do is be there—show our faces and let the kids vent all of this stuff.”

Across the Hudson River in the city’s New Jersey suburbs, schools also were beginning to get counts of the numbers of students with immediate family members who are missing and presumed dead.

Officials in the 6,500-student Montclair district know of at least 17 children who lost immediate family members, although one teacher there expects that number to climb.

“I have personal friends who are missing,” said Judith Towery, who teaches 6th and 7th grades at Glenfield Middle School in Montclair. “It’s hard to deal with that and what your students bring to you.”

Schools affected by the events of Sept. 11 are getting help from the federal government. Secretary Paige visited schools near the World Trade Center site and the Pentagon outside Washington on Sept. 18, bringing monetary gifts and moral support to grieving students and faculty members.

And in a conference call with Mr. Paige and Chancellor Levy, President Bush said: “Your school system suffered, you picked yourself up, got your students readjusted, resituated, and you’re educating. That’s all we can ask for.”

After touring schools near the trade center site and visiting students at PS 41 in Greenwich Village, Mr. Paige delivered a $4 million grant to the New York City schools to provide immediate help—mainly trauma counseling— for students.

The next day, the secretary visited Patrick Henry Elementary School in Arlington, Va., the school nearest the Pentagon, bringing $500,000 to help pay for counseling, security, long-range planning, or other needs.

“We know it will take some time for school districts to determine the extent of their needs,” Mr. Paige said last week. “Our commitment is ongoing.”

Staff Writers Jessica L. Sandham, in New York City, and Joetta L. Sack contributed to this report.

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