9/11 Anniversary

Ten years after 9/11, remembering New York City educators’ role in responding to tragedy

The converted gym on the bottom floor at P.S. 3 served as a evacuation shelter for hundreds of students on Sept. 11, 2001.

It was less than a week into her job as principal and Lisa Siegman was already confronted with her first major crisis.

As a first-year principal on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Siegman was just a few hours into her third day on the job when two hijacked commercial planes struck the World Trade Center less than two miles away. Siegman’s school, P.S. 3 in the West Village, was immediately converted from a place of learning into a refugee shelter.

“It just turned into survival mode,” recalled Siegman.

Within hours, hundreds of students who had evacuated from schools near ground zero were pouring into P.S. 3’s nearly century-old building on Hudson Street. Some of those schools would not reopen for months, causing their students to temporarily become P.S. 3’s.

Siegman, who is still principal at P.S. 3, one of the top-performing schools in the city, said she remembers few details from that day other than how quickly her responsibilities as a school leader had changed and how urgently her skills were needed.

Parent phone calls needed to be made, but most phone lines were down. Information had to be disseminated to staff and parents, but initial announcements from the Department of Education was unclear and conflicting.

“It was this huge logistical problem,” Siegman said. “Suddenly I had to worry about this whole new set of challenges.”

As the city prepares to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Sunday, new attention is being given to the largely unheralded success of educators across the five boroughs that day in coordinating evacuations and dismissals for more than 1 million students.

A new documentary film, produced by the United Federation of Teachers, compiles interviews from dozens of those educators to offer a glimpse into how the crisis was managed from inside the schools and celebrates their roles in shepherding more than 1 million students to safety.

“Not a single child was lost. Every single child got out safely,” former UFT President Randi Weingarten said last night at a screening of the film. Other speakers included police commissioner Ray Kelly, who personally thanked teachers — before hurrying off to deal with a current terror threat — and Harold Levy, the schoolschancellor at the time.

A teacher in Brooklyn 10 years ago, current UFT President Michael Mulgrew recalled last night how his classroom became a makeshift news hub on Sept. 11 because it was the only one equipped for audio and video. He was in the middle of teaching a class when teachers came in to watch the news and everyone saw together the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“Anyone who was in a school that day remembers that day,” Mulgrew told GothamSchools earlier this week. “There were no directions or anything that day.”

Even then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is largely credited for his heady management of the crisis, didn’t know what to do, Levy and Weingarten revealed in a previously untold story last night. Giuliani’s first instinct was to allow schools to dismiss children without parental consent. But after fierce protests from a united Levy and Weingarten, Giuliani relented and allowed principals to keep children in the schools.

For the teachers and principals who lived through that day and remain in the school system, revisiting the experience in the classroom will be especially difficult. To help, earlier this month Chancellor Dennis Walcott released lesson plans and curriculum material that can be used to help children with no memory of the attacks learn about its significance during the 10th anniversary year.

But at P.S. 3, an elementary school, most students weren’t even born yet and Siegman said she had no plans to draw specific attention to the event in the coming weeks.

Standing in the converted gym on the bottom floor at P.S. 3, where 10 years earlier hundreds of evacuees had spent hours playing hula hoop and other games while they waited to be picked up by parents, Siegman rejected the notion that her role was in any way heroic. To her, being principal of a school transcends any crisis that might take place under her roof.

“This place was where my focus was,” Siegman said. “These kids were where my focus was.”

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”