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.”

Newsroom

To promote virtual schools, Betsy DeVos cites a graduate who’s far from the norm

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spoke to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in June.

If Betsy Devos is paying any attention to unfolding critiques of virtual charter schools, she didn’t let it show last week when she spoke to free-market policy advocates in Spokane, Washington.

Just days after Politico published a scathing story about virtual charters’ track record in Pennsylvania, DeVos, the U.S. education secretary, was touting their successes at the Washington Policy Center’s annual dinner.

DeVos’s speech was largely identical in its main points to one she gave at Harvard University last month. But she customized the stories of students who struggled in traditional schools with local examples, and in doing so provided an especially clear example of why she believes in virtual schools.

From the speech:

I also think of Sandeep Thomas. Sandeep grew up impoverished in Bangalore, India and experienced terrible trauma in his youth. He was adopted by a loving couple from New Jersey, but continued to suffer from the unspeakable horrors he witnessed in his early years. He was not able to focus in school, and it took him hours to complete even the simplest assignment.

This changed when his family moved to Washington, where Sandeep was able to enroll in a virtual public school. This option gave him the flexibility to learn in the quiet of his own home and pursue his learning at a pace that was right for him. He ended up graduating high school with a 3.7 GPA, along with having earned well over a year of college credit. Today, he’s working in finance and he is a vocal advocate for expanding options that allow students like him a chance to succeed.

But Thomas — who spoke at a conference of a group DeVos used to chair, Advocates for Children, in 2013 as part of ongoing work lobbying for virtual charters — is hardly representative of online school students.

In Pennsylvania, Politico reported last week, 30,000 students are enrolled in virtual charters with an average 48 percent graduation rate. In Indiana, an online charter school that had gotten a stunning six straight F grades from the state — one of just three schools in that positionis closing. And an Education Week investigation into Colorado’s largest virtual charter school found that not even a quarter of the 4,000 students even log on to do work every day.

The fact that in many states with online charters, large numbers of often needy students have enrolled without advancing has not held DeVos back from supporting the model. (A 2015 study found that students who enrolled in virtual charters in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin did just as well as similar students who stayed in brick-and-mortar schools.) In fact, she appeared to ignore their track records during the confirmation process in January, citing graduation rates provided by a leading charter operator that were far higher — nearly 40 points in one case — than the rates recorded by the schools’ states.

She has long backed the schools, and her former organization has close ties to major virtual school operators, including K12, the one that generated the inflated graduation numbers. In her first week as education secretary, DeVos said, “I expect there will be more virtual schools.”

expansion plans

Here are the next districts where New York City will start offering preschool for 3-year-olds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, left, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, visited a "Mommy and Me" class in District 27 in Queens, where the city is set to expand 3-K For All.

New York City officials on Tuesday announced which school districts are next in line for free pre-K for 3-year-olds, identifying East Harlem and the eastern neighborhoods of Queens for expansion of the program.

Building on its popular universal pre-K program for 4-year-olds, the city this year began serving even younger students with “3-K For All” in two high-needs school districts. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to make 3-K available to every family who wants it by 2021.

“Our education system all over the country had it backwards for too long,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We are recognizing we have to reach kids younger and more deeply if we’re going to be able to give them the foundation they need.”

But making preschool available to all of the city’s 3-year-olds will require an infusion of $700 million from the state or federal governments. In the meantime, de Blasio said the city can afford to expand to eight districts, at a cost of $180 million of city money a year.

Funding isn’t the only obstacle the city faces to make 3-K available universally. De Blasio warned that finding the room for an estimated 60,000 students will be a challenge. Space constraints were a major factor in picking the next districts for expansion, he said.

“I have to tell you, this will take a lot of work,” he said, calling it “even harder” than the breakneck rollout of pre-K for all 4-year-olds. “We’re building something brand new.”

De Blasio, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, has made expansion of early childhood education a cornerstone of his administration. The city kicked off its efforts this September in District 7 in the South Bronx, and District 23 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. More than 2,000 families applied for those seats, and 84 percent of those living in the pilot districts got an offer for enrollment, according to city figures.

According to the timeline released Thursday, the rollout will continue next school year in District 4 in Manhattan, which includes East Harlem; and District 27 in Queens, which includes Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Rockaways.

By the 2019 – 2020 school year, the city plans to launch 3-K in the Bronx’s District 9, which includes the Grand Concourse, Highbridge and Morrisania neighborhoods; and District 31, which spans all of Staten Island.

The 2020 – 2021 school year would see the addition of District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York; and District 29 in Queens, which includes Cambria Heights, Hollis, Laurelton, Queens Village, Springfield Gardens and St. Albans.

With all those districts up and running, the city expects to serve 15,000 students.

Admission to the city’s pre-K programs is determined by lottery. Families don’t have to live in the district where 3-K is being offered to apply for a seat, though preference will be given to students who do. With every expansion, the city expects it will take two years for each district to have enough seats for every district family who wants one.