Features

What Hath 9.11 Wrought?

In the aftermath, school leaders see shifts in thinking, priorities and curricular emphases by Richard Lee Colvin

When the first plane of death sliced through the World Trade Center tower last September, Daniel Domenech, the superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., was chairing his regular Tuesday morning meeting with about 30 of his top staff members. A note was handed to him advising him of the tragedy and his first thought was that something must have gone terribly wrong by accident.

 

Word of the second plane, however, brought the meeting to an abrupt halt. Soon after, Domenech learned of a third plane plunging into the nearby Pentagon, where many Fairfax students and school district employees were sure to have relatives. Domenech knew it was time to act. It was time to lead.

“We had to basically get into high gear,” he says. “We had to make some very quick decisions.”

School administrators from coast to coast had the same reaction. Although police and firefighters and soldiers got more attention, public school leaders also were on the front lines of the response to the attack. They knew their employees, students and communities would look to them for answers. But just as with everyone else they didn’t yet know exactly what was happening. That made it difficult to know what to do.

In the East, students were already in school and might be shielded from the news—temporarily. Further west, they were en route to school. And on the West Coast, some students arriving at school already had seen the gut-wrenching images of majestic skyscrapers collapsing while others were oblivious to the fact that their world’s predictable orbit had just been thrown irrevocably off kilter.

No matter what time zone they were in, the first thoughts of school leaders—teachers, principals and superintendents alike—turned to tending to their students. There were sure to be emotional reactions, especially from students with relatives directly involved. As it became clear that these acts were cold and calculated acts of terror, there were security concerns as well. Where would the next plane strike?

In lower Manhattan, teachers and administrators faced an even more immediate set of issues. Schools near the devastated towers had to be evacuated and students rushed to safety, some of them ferried to Staten Island or to New Jersey. In the suburbs of New York and Washington, D.C., the challenge was to figure out what to do with children whose parents might be trapped in the city and unable to get home or whose parents might never come home again. In New York, many telephones, cellular and conventional, as well as Internet connections, were not working. Around Washington, circuits were jammed and so were roads out of the city.

New Directions

As now seems obvious, there was no playbook, no textbook on administration, no school board policy, to turn to for guidance. Sept. 11 and its aftermath caused the best administrators to draw on the same willingness to meet a challenge head-on that prompted many of them to become educational leaders in the first place. And as they did so, it became clear to many that the attacks and the war on terrorism launched in response had the potential to transform schools in as yet unknown ways, just as earlier wars had done.

In one of his first decisions, Domenech ordered the Fairfax County schools be kept open that first day rather than send children home to uncertainty. “We were going to keep the children in our schools, figuring this was the safest place for them to be. We would stay open as long as we had to, to keep kids whose circumstances were such that they couldn’t go home.”

That decision, made quickly, won the community’s gratitude. “People were calling and telling us, `I can’t tell you how grateful I was that Fairfax was staying open because I didn’t know when I’d be able to get home,’” Domenech says.

The 160,000-student district closed its schools the next day, as did many in the Washington area. The area’s superintendents joined in a conference call with municipal leaders to discuss what should happen next with federal emergency and law enforcement officials. “What we were getting was that the threat wasn’t over and that schools had best be closed to keep traffic down and keep roads open,” Domenech says.

Halting classes also gave administrators a chance to retool emergency response plans and to craft new security measures. Entry to campuses would be more tightly controlled. Teachers and other staff would be required to display identification. That had to be communicated to students and their parents. So a letter was sent to every family, and announcements were posted on the school district’s Web page and broadcast on its television channels.

“There’s been a change in our priorities,” Domenech says. “The safety and welfare of our students all of a sudden has become paramount. Academics are certainly important and we’ll continue to focus on achievement. But the issue of safety and security comes first.”

Beyond the Surface

Even as they were making rapid-fire decisions as issues arose, many administrators also realized they had a larger, less tangible role to fulfill, says Robert Feirsen, an assistant superintendent in the Manhasset Public Schools on Long Island. They had to be more than efficient, businesslike managers. They had to convey calm, soothe fears and embody a set of values—all at once, all on the run.

“Everything you do has an importance beyond its surface appearance,” says Feirsen, whose doctoral thesis addressed the leader’s role in shaping the culture of a school. “It’s the way you react, the things you say, the style in which you do things, the effort you put in, the nurturing you give to people, the stability people see in your decisions.”

The 2,500-student district on Long Island’s north shore is part of a community where many residents work on Wall Street or in banking. Most of the students and staff knew someone lost in the tragedy. About 15 students lost family members.

In recognition of that, the school district recast its annual Homecoming festivities last fall as a celebration of and a memorial to those who’d lost their lives. The turnout was significantly larger than in previous years and had the feel of a communitywide gathering. The district also offered teachers a full day of training in how to deal with their students’ emotional response to the tragedy. Counselors were made available for students, parents and teachers. And when the war in Afghanistan began, the district helped teachers integrate news into daily lessons.

Many, Feirsen believes, “will look back at what principals, superintendents and other leaders did and they will really be appreciative of the way they held things together. That’s the phrase they use. As if school leaders are the glue, the physical and emotional and social force that really keeps things together in a crisis.”

Of course, the most visible exemplar of such leadership was not a school administrator. Rather, it was New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who won coast-to-coast praise for how he calmly but resolutely vowed that the city would not be defeated. He seemed to be everywhere at once, comforting mourners, providing information and rallying his fellow New Yorkers.

Halfway across the country in Madison, Wis., George Theoharis, the principal of Falk Elementary School, was exhibiting the same characteristics. He went to every classroom to check in with teachers. “I wanted to make sure they were OK and to talk about facts and rumors and the difference,” recalls Theoharis, who is in his second year as an administrator. “I wanted to make sure the message to all students and families was that this is a safe place, that we were a family and a community. That we would take care of each other and deal with each other.”

By the end of that first week, Theoharis says, he’d never felt so tired in his life. “It was a reminder of how big and important school leadership is.”

The challenges for educators were not over, however.

Broadening Purpose

Over the next few months, administrators would have to learn to deal with an unprecedented range of issues—from training staff members on how to safely open mail to the beliefs of modern Islam and how to teach about them. Every decision—whether to allow students to go on out-of-town field trips, whether to attend a football game in another county—took on more significance.

Prior to Sept. 11, the purpose of schooling, in the view of many educators, had been narrowed to train students in academic skills. The reputations of school districts rose or fell with their scores on state tests. The main thrust of the Bush administration’s education reform that was then being developed was to make every school in America responsible for raising test performance for all students every year. School districts from Texas to California and Florida to New York reported they were focusing so much attention on raising test scores in math and reading that their teachers had little time for anything else.

But that single-minded focus had to be re-examined as part of the aftermath of the attacks. While test scores and accountability are unlikely to disappear from the policy environment, schools and their leaders also are being asked to carry out a more complex agenda that serves broader civic goals. Now schools are explicitly being called on to teach an understanding of Islam, inculcate tolerance, foster a sense of community and instill patriotism—in addition to boosting test scores.

“I believe that Sept. 11 and its aftermath … has not so much added new responsibilities as it has reinforced older parts of our mission that we have been neglecting,” says Thomas Sobol, an education professor at Teachers College of Columbia University and a former superintendent in Scarsdale, N.Y. “We’ve not been looking at … the deeper goals of education, preparing kids to live well in a democratic society, to understand their own culture and how it’s viewed … and to understand other cultures.”

Last fall, the Bush adminis-tration launched a series of efforts aimed at involving schools in what might be called a homeland defense of American heritage and ideals. In conjunction with Veterans Day, the U.S. Department of Education asked schools to invite military veterans into classrooms to help students explore American history and values. The White House also posted on its Web site a “freedom timeline” that spotlighted uplifting episodes in American history, such as the liberation of slaves via the Underground Railroad and the Berlin Airlift that brought humanitarian aid to trapped Germans at the end of World War II. The president also asked children to donate to a fund to benefit Afghan children and endorsed a project that connects American schools with counterparts in the Muslim world.

Those efforts came on top of what already was a renewal of such outward signs of patriotic fervor as the Pledge to Allegiance and the revival of “God Bless America” as nation’s most widely sung hymn.

“The kids of this generation have had a pretty easy life and haven’t had to examine what it is they believe in,” says Jane Sigford, director of curriculum for the Wayzata School District outside of Minneapolis. “This has given a focus to discussions of what it means to be an American.”

But that’s a discussion that’s fraught with the potential for conflict, especially in communities that are home to large numbers of immigrants. As an educator, Sigford says, “what you have to do first is know yourself, know your values and then be responsive to the multitude of other values that are out there.”

One place educators have looked to for help in facilitating discussions is Educators for Social Responsibility, a group based in Cambridge, Mass. In the three months following the terrorist attacks, the group distributed more of its materials having to do with conflict resolution, how to deal with differences of opinion in classroom discussions and international security issues than in any similar period in its 20-year history.

Larry Dieringer, the group’s executive director, says many teachers have strong feelings about the war and want to give their students opportunities to discuss it. But many also lack the skills needed to keep such discussions from spiraling out of control into adversarial shouting matches.

“For teachers it’s a real challenge to bring multiple perspectives into the classroom … because there’s such strong support among people for the government’s actions and there’s a tight link between supporting the government and patriotism,” Dieringer says.

“Patriotism means believing in all of what a democracy stands for, including, in times like this, making sure that everyone has a voice,” he says. “But now many people believe that patriotism is following what our leaders say to do.”

Political Debates

The potential for conflicts arising from displays of patriotism in the public schools played out in the liberal stronghold of Madison, Wis. Under a state law passed earlier in the year, students were supposed to begin saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag or sing the national anthem every school day morning before class beginning Oct. 1. But the district’s school board was concerned that forcing students to participate would offend or alienate some students. So the board decided to simply play an instrumental recording of the anthem, unaccompanied by children’s voices.

Word of the policy sparked nationwide outrage. The school district had to assign five secretaries to answer phone calls from people complaining, often vociferously. “People really thought the district was being unpatriotic,” Theoharis says. After a week, the board backed down and said schools could start the day with either the pledge or the anthem, and students were free to participate or not.

The incident touched off political debate, marked by public commentaries from the right and the left. University of Michigan historian and education professor Jeffrey Mirel suggested public schools should balance those views by teaching explicit lessons about the superiority of democracy as a form of government—as long as they do so honestly and own up to the shortcomings of the United States while celebrating its triumphs.

“We’ve become afraid of touting the greatness of democracy because it starts to sound jingoistic and chauvinistic,” says Mirel. “But schools need to start getting students to really understand … that this is very much what this war is about. It’s not simply a war against terrorism but a war against people … who are absolutely against the kind of pluralism we believe in.”

Education leaders, he argues, have to commit themselves to making available the time and resources to teach such lessons. One place they might turn for guidance, he says, is an essay written in 1941 that laid out a remarkably inclusive vision of how schools should address democratic ideals during a time of national conflict.

The essay, titled “The Education of Free Men in American Democracy,” was written by Teachers College Professor George Counts for a joint commission of the National Education Association and the American Association of School Administrators. (See excerpts)

Democracy, wrote Counts, “is incomparably finer than the totalitarian rivals with which it is engaged in struggle for survival today.” He then listed six principles that should be stressed in such lessons, concluding that “racial, cultural and political minorities should be tolerated, respected and valued.”

Prayer Revival

Another issue that’s tested school administrators in recent months is how to handle what seems to be greater interest and support for expressions of spirituality on campus. On Sept. 11, the student body president at Sauk Prairie High School outside of Madison, Wis., came to Principal Brian Salzer to ask permission to lead the 850-student school in prayer. As an alternative, Salzer suggested the student convene a prayer gathering for interested students in front of school the next morning.

“It was difficult for me because I’m a deeply spiritual person myself and I could see what he wanted to do and I agreed with it,” Salzer says. “But as a principal I couldn’t support it. We had a great discussion about the public forum and freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

Salzer also allowed students to leave school during the lunch hour to attend church, if they wanted. And he allowed for a moment of silence. “It became quite a spiritual time and I felt responsible for making that opportunity available for students and staff,” he says.

Terrence Deal, a professor of education at the University of Southern California and co-author of Leading With Soul, says the jolt of fear and horror dealt by the terrorists caused “people to focus on what really matters.” And test scores, he adds, are less important in the long run than are the relationships established between educators and their students.

“Standards are important, but there’s also a spiritual side of what an organization is all about,” he says.

But true as that may be, the focus on excellence and performance is unlikely to disappear. Robert Peterkin, a former superintendent who codirects the Urban Superintendent Network at Harvard, says while schools always will be concerned about the emotional and psychological health of children, their responsibility to ensure the attention to reading, writing and math skills doesn’t fade, he says.

In some ways, the continued focus on academics should be seen as a signal that schools are returning to normal and are going about their core mission. “Now we need smarter, better educated people so we can understand our place in the world … and that means we have to have skills,” says Peterkin, who previously ran the Cambridge, Mass., schools.

Diminished Priority

Yet even as schools accept these additional responsibilities, their resources are shrinking. The economic recession that began even before Sept. 11 deepened in the months afterwards. By November, Congressional studies had found that states planned to cut more than $11 billion from education spending.

Carl Cohn, the longtime superintendent of the Long Beach, Calif., Unified Schools, says he believed that Sept. 11 marked the end of an era of education reform that had begun 18 years earlier with the “Nation at Risk” report. Ever since, Cohn adds, education had been at or near the top of Americans’ concerns. But with the beginning of what may be a protracted war on terrorism, education is likely to fade in importance.

“I think that this was that extraordinary, exogenous event, a la Sputnik, that probably is going to put the brakes on education as the nation’s top priority,” Cohn contends. “We’re just beginning to know what ‘homeland security’ means and I think superintendents and other leaders will be spending an awful lot of time on that in both the short-term and the long-term.”

During World War II, school districts across America prepared adults to go into defense industries. They used war bonds in their math lessons and the map of war in their geography lessons. The schools, in myriad ways, became auxiliaries of the war effort.

Cohn doesn’t expect that to happen again. Nor does he expect there to be a return of the draft. But he thinks there may well be some mandatory community service duty imposed on young people. Classrooms, meanwhile, will need to focus much more on the global economy and on the languages and geography of the Middle East and less on preparing students to head off to college.

Leaders, he says, will “need to be able to peer around the corner … and try to figure out what a cataclysmic event like this means.”

But whatever comes their way, says Gwen Gross, superintendent of the Beverly Hills, Calif., Unified School District, educators will find a way to adapt and make it work. Flexibility, she adds, is the hallmark of educators in general and school administrators in particular.

“In schools, one thing we do well is to adjust,” says Gross, a superintendent for 10 years in three California districts. “You are dealt things constantly and you just move quickly. That’s a real strength of people in this field.”

Richard Lee Colvin is an education writer with the Los Angeles Times. E-mail: Richard.Colvin@latimes.com