9/11: What was it like to be a principal on that day?
Principals and teachers working in diverse, high-poverty schools are constantly challenged, even on a normal school day. In addition to the need to raise the achievement of each and every one of our students, our school had to overcome a number of externally imposed challenges. In fact, our teachers designed a t-shirt to commemorate our decade-long series of ordeals.
The back of the shirt read:
Seven years of renovation
SOLs (Virginia Standards of Learning)
September 11, 2001
The Beltway Sniper
The War in Iraq
The Winter of 2003
No Child Left Behind
"The Worm" (a computer virus that virtually shutdown our entire school system)
Lead in our water
"The Meltdown" (We lost all power to for an entire day.)
The front of the shirt read:
AND WE THRIVED!
J.E.B. Stuart High School
A Breakthrough High School
Without a doubt, of all the events, September 11, 2001 sticks out in my memory, just as it does for many Americans, most of whom will never forget what they were doing and where they were on that fateful day.
Ten years ago, our diverse, high-poverty school was basking in the light of being featured in highly complimentary article titled "Changing America" in the September, 2001 issue of National Geographic Magazine. The article was the culmination of a two-year long vetting by the Magazine's writers and photographers, who were given 24/7 access to the school and homes of our students.
The article, which was initially intended to focus on the difficulty that immigrant populations had assimilating into American culture, ended up being a celebration of the culture of our school as a focal point of our diverse community. If anything, and I mean anything, wasn't working in our school, the writers and photographers would have found it. It was as though we had gone through a two-year long audit of our school culture.
National Geographic Magazine, I later learned, is renowned in the field of journalism for their thoroughness. Yes, this was risky, but we came through with flying colors, and we all breathed a big sigh of relief when the issue was finally released. Although we didn't know it at the time, we wouldn't have long to enjoy our success.
Expecting the Unexpected
There are some things that happen in schools that simply cannot be anticipated. We conduct fire drills and bus evacuation drills. We plan for bomb threats and chemical and biological attacks, but sometimes things just happen and our work is put to a real-world test, not a multiple choice or fill in the blank test, but a real honest-to-goodness test. If and when the unexpected occur, and we, as school leaders, and our staff have done our jobs, we pass the test with flying colors. If not, things could get pretty ugly.
September 11, 2001 was just such a day. For our school, it was the mother of all tests. We never could have anticipated the tragic events of that day. It was one of those days that put everything we did in a school to the test. If we had done our homework in building strong relationships, and a warm, inviting school culture, and made enough deposits into our "emotional bank account" we would get through this unscathed. If we thought that National Geographic had been a test of our work, we hadn't seen anything yet. Working in America's "most diverse high school" on September 11, 2001 was a day that I will always remember.
Shock and Disbelief!
Our school resource officer burst into our weekly staff meeting and announced that we were under attack. We immediately turned on the television in time to see the second plane fly into one of the Twin Towers. Like everyone else, including the network reporters, we were confused and horrified. There were many false reports made that day. So, we had to try to sort rumors from reality. For example, our resource officer received reports that one of the nearby apartment buildings, in which many of our student lived, had been bombed and that vehicles were exploding on the highway near the school. Both turned out to be false. However, when I looked out of my window, I could see smoke billowing overhead. We didn't know it at the time, but that smoke was coming from the plane that had crashed into the Pentagon. In the following days, we learned that we lost several parents who worked there.
Compounding the fears of everyone was the fact that all the cell lines were jammed. It was impossible to reach anyone. We felt isolated and we learned early on that we were on our own.
We knew couldn't control what happened outside of the school, but we could impact what happened inside the school. We had to be calm and to maintain a sense of business-as-usual. Our first thoughts went out to our own families, but we had to keep our focus on our responsibility to protect and care for 1,500 other peoples' children.
We knew that everyone would be watching us and taking their cues from us. Despite the confusion and turmoil that we all felt on the inside, we knew that we had to be visible and put on a positive face. We had no choice. We had to hold it together!
As soon as I could, I went on to the PA system and made an announcement informing everyone of what we knew at the time. We immediately went into action circulating through the building to take the pulse of the teachers and students. Many of the classes had already turned on their televisions, and the students were fixated on the screens.
Our school was undergoing a major renovation and we had a number of construction workers in the building every day. As soon as the news of the attacks circulated, they could be seen literally running from the building.
After a while, it became apparent to us that we needed to limit prolonged viewing of TV news coverage, because it was too emotionally gut wrenching for our students to helplessly watch constant reruns of scenes of planes flying into buildings and people jumping to their deaths. So, early on we decided to limit the number of cable stations available to the classrooms and to have our librarian watch all the major networks, take notes, sort out truth from rumor, and provide me with periodic reports, which I delivered to the entire school.
Our teachers were doing a fantastic job of holding things together in the classrooms. Our concern focused on the times that the teachers were not with the students. We knew that class changes and lunch would be our critical times. If we could get through the lunch periods without a melt down, we would be home free. We were all present in the cafeteria and we recruited some teachers to be available to talk with students.
Everything was going smoothly until some of our parents, who had left their places of work, arrived. Some had come with the intention of taking their children home. Some even bypassed the main office and rushed into the cafeteria sobbing. I am proud to say that it was the students who calmed their parents. I distinctly remember the daughter of one local official telling her mother, who had come to pick her up and take her home, "Calm down. I don't want to go home. We are safe here! Everything is okay. I want to stay here with my friends." When I heard that statement, I knew things would be all right.
At the End of the Day
Eventually, the school day ended without incident. The construction workers left, and many parents departed their places of work to come to the school to pick up their kids. However, despite the fact that we all had our own families and children, our entire staff remained at the school. We knew that we were all that our kids had that day. If our students needed calming down and comforting, we were the one who would do it. As far as we knew, we were all they had.
9/11 was a big test for our school. We had to make a huge withdrawal from our "emotional bank account" that day. Fortunately for all involved, our teachers and staff had made so many deposits with so many kids that this withdrawal was hardly noticed. Our students trusted us, not because of who we were. They trusted us because of the relationships we built with them every day, day in and day out.
Our students knew that we cared about them, because we demonstrated it to them in so many ways ranging from a simple smile or holding a door to providing a clean, safe and inviting school environment where they felt wanted and, more importantly, where they wanted to be. In retrospect, we passed all the big tests our school faced because of all the little things we all did every day.
The Bottom Line
When the unexpected occurs, and it will, schools can't fake it. We have either earned trust or we haven't. Ultimately, we have either done the right thing, the right way, for the right reason or we haven't, and our students know it. Believe me! They know it and they will show it!