Ten Years After 9/11, Lower Manhattan High School Finds Its Musical Voice

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17 May 2012

The Leadership and Public Service High School, nestled at 90 Trinity Place in lower Manhattan, was in the shadow of the Twin Towers when they were attacked in 2001. A grant from the "Smash": Make a Musical Program is helping the once-devastated school step back into the light.

A collaboration between the NBC musical series and iTheatrics, which develops condensed versions of Broadway shows for students – packaged as Broadway Junior by Music Theatre International – the ambitious Make a Musical Program aims to establish sustainable musical theatre programs in underserved schools across the U.S.

Kelly D. Gillis, who is in her third year at the school as a theatre and special education instructor, is helping to shape and expand the arts program at the high school, which was among the first schools in the U.S. to receive a grant from the "Smash": Make a Musical Program.

"Three years ago there were 12 students in our theatre program. We now have approximately 40 kids performing, with 35 kids working backstage," Gillis said. This is an encouraging picture compared to what the school faced over the last decade.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, students were in class at the Leadership and Public Service High School when the planes struck the towers. The engine from the second plane fell onto the roof of the school, while subsequent explosions and building collapses in the area damaged the school so badly that the building was closed for over a year.

"It almost honestly destroyed our school," Gillis said. "A lot of the teachers who were present during 9/11 are still here. There were major heroic efforts on the part of the people who worked here at the time, who took two of our students in wheelchairs, flung them over their shoulders, and ran."

In the days and months following the closure of Lower Manhattan, the Leadership and Public Service High School became one of the morgues used by recovery workers.

Students were moved to schools across New York City and when the time came to re-open its doors nearly two years later, many parents were reluctant to send their children back. "We had a breakdown, parents were afraid, kids were afraid," Gillis said. The once high-performing school saw its ranking drop.

A decade later, the Leadership and Public Service High School is making ground in regaining its academic standing and changing the emotional canvas of the student population. The lobby displays artwork students created to honor the 9/11 first responders, and today the windows of the school look out on to the newly unveiled 9/11 Memorial.

Part of this regrowth is the newly-thriving theatre program that Gillis and her team have spent the past three years cultivating. When word came from the New York City Department of Education that NBC's "Smash" and iTheatrics were funding musical theatre programs in schools, Gillis, with the blessing of her principal Philip Santos, applied for one of the grants. "I just thought, 'Let's fill out the application, God knows we need the money,'" Gillis laughed.

Within weeks they received the news that they had been selected. The students and faculty were elated.


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