Making the Most of a Bad Situation

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Editor's Note: This essay was written Monday, Nov. 5, the day staff and faculty of Millenium High School usually based in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan returned to work ahead of a scheduled relocation due to storm damage. One teacher shares his impressions.

As the Millenium teaching and staff community slowly filed in from all five boroughs this morning, we crammed ourselves into a small fourth grade classroom. It had been years since most us sat in such tiny chairs. Chatter filled the little room with stories from the storm. Some had lost a lot, while others barely lost power. Some watched as water poured into their ground floor apartment, while others went without phone service for days. Some teachers said they caught up on grading while others spent quality time with their kids.

The room was alive with excitement, as if we all suffered from cabin fever. It was clear most of us just wanted to get back to work yet our school, just a half a mile away, remained closed. 75 Broad Street, our home, was without power so it was also without its 600-plus students and the energy of Millennium High School.

Soon, our principal, McEvoy as most of us call him, laid out our situation, much like Mayor Bloomberg did for the city in the storm's aftermath. We listened intently as he explained that our school was now divided in half. Our 9th and 10th graders would be relocated to P.S. 184, while our 11th and 12th graders would be shuttled to University Neighborhood High School. Our thoughts were racing but returned to one question: how do you split a school, especially after such a tragedy?

Soon the announcements came over the loud speaker and our entire staff stood up to pledge allegiance to the flag. In a foreign school, secretaries next to school aides, side by side with administrators, shoulder to shoulder with teachers, our staff was one — and yet we had been asked to divide.

Instead of complaining, or sulking, or shutting down, our principal took the lead and offered some suggestions. Collectively we decided to take it day by day. The first order of business was to figure out what Wednesday would look like — our first day of school in the year that never seemed to get started.

With lesson plans and attendance sheets trapped 13 flights up at 75 Broad Street, and student notebooks and folders locked away in lockers on the same floor, the challenges grew. With over 300 students arriving to an already full primary school, we would have to make due with the 9 or 10 rooms they so generously offered. With Regents exams just two months away, and college deadlines next week, a sense of urgency was building.

Luckily, our strength is found within the structures of the community we have built. With each student belonging to an advisory, we decided to separate students and staff in this way. Each classroom would have two advisory classes and two advisors. Our two guidance counselors would split between the schools. Our college counselors would go with the 11th and 12th graders. Our special education department would split. Our District 75 staff would split. Our secretaries would split. Quickly, everyone began to realize their role and play to their strengths.

Being housed in an elementary school with incoming high school students poses its obvious problems. Lunch? Arrival? Dismissal? Bathroom usage? We needed authorization to have a staggered schedule. Eventually, we found out that our students would arrive at 9 a.m. and eat lunch at 1:30 p.m., in order to limit the interaction between the students. We would also be limited to one floor of the building. What about the students attending UNHS? Having another student body enter a pre-existing school can cause a lot of drama. Visions of turf wars may come to mind. And although UNHS seemed like a perfectly great school, with kind students, very little can stop teenage hormones and adolescent territorial nature. And so, again, we were offered a staggered schedule and limited stairwell use. Millenium students would use one exit and entrance, while students of UNHS would use another.

The pieces were slowly fitting together. Although not ideal, we were making the most of it.

Back in our little classroom with the tiny chairs, teachers facilitated grade-level meetings to determine the schedule for each grade. It was decided that the first part of the day would be used to process and reflect upon the happenings of the last week. Students would be asked to journal and then share out. At-risk students or students suffering possible PTSD would be referred to guidance. Our guidance counselors would be given a small space on the second floor to help these students and also offer help to those whose parents have not yet completed their FEMA forms. Teachers divvied up roles, figuring out what supplies needed to be bought, and who would facilitate each discussion. Students would remain in their classrooms for the day, and teachers would come to them, reviewing material, doing Regents prep, and helping them finish projects that were interrupted by Sandy.

Before we knew it, hours had passed. Wednesday was planned. Soon we would have to move to Thursday and Friday. However, the bigger picture was that even though our students were not returning to the school they had hoped for, they would still be met by they same smiling faces that care so much about them. Those who had been beaten by the storm would have a warm building and a hot meal. They would see their friends again. They would have some piece of normalcy back in their life. And although we may be divided by blocks, we will show our students that this school community is bigger and better than any building that houses it.