Schools work to create safe havens in chaos

When news of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington reached Willard Elementary School last Tuesday, confused students looked to their teachers for answers.

Teachers didn’t quite know what to tell them, said Principal Shelley Paulson Carey.

“We tried not to give more information than they could handle,” she said. “The best environment for this kind of discussion is the home, but we didn’t want to not answer questions.”

Willard and other District 65 schools tried to maintain regular schedules.

D65, which includes all of Evanston’s elementary and middle schools, on Tuesday handled the tragedy relatively quietly.

“Our main order of business was to make sure the children were safe,” Carey said. “We talked with teachers at noontime about how to handle the situation, and we talked about assuring the children they were safe.”

Willard, like all District 65 schools, maintained its normal schedule, but officials advised teachers to answer students’ questions and then move on to the day’s lesson plan.

“We kept business as usual, and we encouraged our teachers to not tell kids everything that was going on,” said Michelle Parke, a district communication specialist.

At Nichols Middle School, administrators decided to avoid an all-school assembly and other things that would detract from schoolwork, said school psychologist Allina Nikolopoulou. The school asked teachers to leave televisions turned off.

“We wanted to avoid having nine periods of rehash,” she said. “Instead, we decided to use social studies classes for discussion about the attacks.”

Nikolopoulou said Nichols’ students behaved normally on Sept. 11 and in the days after. No one sought counseling, she said.

“We had extremely mild responses from our children,” she said.

For Joyce Coburn, who teaches music to sixth-graders at Nichols, the tragedy proved less of a distraction to students only hours after the attacks.

“I did not see any obvious signs of distress,” Coburn said. “But they had already had several classes before mine.”

D65 schools have tried to channel students’ responses to the attacks into positive activities. The district started a fundraising drive for the American Red Cross, setting up collection efforts at every school.

The district plans to start collecting money today.

At Willard, students have written letters to injured firefighters. In addition, every classroom is making a “Wishes for Our World” poster, some of which have been displayed throughout the school.

Carey said this positive action helps students deal with their intense feelings about the tragedy.

“It helps them feel like they are part of the solution and not a part of the problem,” Carey said.

At ETHS, students followed their regular schedules, but teachers threw out lesson plans for the day.

The students heard the news in their regular homeroom, which began at 9:45 a.m.

“[Homeroom is] a good place to disseminate information, and a nurturing place when there’s troubling news,” said Kathy Miehls, ETHS director of public relations.

Administrators wanted to “put factual information in the hands of students and staff” as quickly as possible, as well as let them know that counselors and phones were available if needed, Miehls said.

All the districts canceled after-school activities, “not for safety reasons,” Miehls said, “but because this was a time for family.”

On Friday, in recognition of the national day of prayer and mourning, high school students stood in the hall together, some holding hands. There was a moment of silence. Then Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful” played over the public address system.

“I’ve never heard the building that quiet,” Miehls said. “It was very, very moving.”

Superintendent Allan Alson asked that students not be interviewed in the wake of what happened. However, students expressed their opinions on a bulletin board set out by radio/TV teacher Joe Carroll.

He said he regularly uses the bulletin board outside his room for a student forum, but has found that kids are taking this one more seriously.

“This is the only time I’ve put something up that I haven’t had to censor,” Carroll said.

It went up on the Monday following the attack, and is now covered with sentiments such as “I’m proud to be an American.”

“Count your blessings” was written in blue marker in the middle of the board.

Written nearby, “Let us act wisely.”