Manhattan school reopens near ground zero

Posted: Wednesday, February 06, 2002

NEW YORK -- The rhythm of the new school year broke on the morning of Sept. 11 at P.S. 234. Students huddled in shuttered classrooms and then evacuated the school as the World Trade Center burned and collapsed three blocks away.

On Monday, four months and two temporary schools later, 6-year-old Dashiell Lieberman smiled as he cut a red ribbon tied around the school's closed metal gates. Cheerleaders from nearby Stuyvesant High School performed for students and their parents.

Hundreds of students rushed into the courtyard to begin their school day.

For parents, children, teachers and administrators, relief at the return mixed with disturbing memories of the attack.

''I'm not going to talk about that today,'' principal Anna Switzer said. ''It's been a terrible time for the families. ... It's exhilarating to be back. It's absolutely wonderful.''

Immediately after the attack, teachers herded students into classrooms and closed the blinds to block the view of the devastation. They evacuated the site soon after.

Six hundred students from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade attend the school. The Parent Teacher Association voted in December to return to the school after extensive cleaning and environmental testing were completed.

Two blocks away, P.S. 150, with 175 students, also reopened Monday. P.S. 89 in nearby Battery Park City is not expected to reopen for weeks amid some parents' fears that air is dangerously polluted, that the school has not been thoroughly cleaned and that the children need more counseling about the attack.

Natasjah DeFalco, 6, said she was happy to be back at P.S. 234 although she clearly remembered the events of Sept. 11. ''I was safe and sound in my classroom,'' she said. ''It wasn't scary for me but it was scary for my mommy.''

Her mother, Ann DeFalco, a university librarian, recalled rushing across lower Manhattan soon after the first plane struck the trade center. She picked up her daughter and rushed her to their home, which also soon had to be evacuated.

''People were running out of the neighborhood, so I was running against the panic,'' Ann DeFalco said.

Schools Chancellor Harold Levy spent about an hour at P.S. 234 and P.S. 150 Monday morning greeting children and talking to the schools' principals, administrators and staff.

''It's weird,'' 9-year-old Wyatt Leach said of returning to P.S. 234. ''It's like we're starting at a whole different school from a very, very long summer.''

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