A zombie apocalypse taking over the South Street Seaport, a four alarm fire in the Bronx with people trapped, a water main break with large-scale flooding on the A/C subway lines, Manhattan hospitals overrun with patients from a nationwide Salmonella outbreak, these are some of the topics you could hear walking the halls of The Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management (UASEM) on any given day. UASEM is a Career and Technical Education (CTE) school that prepares students for both college and career in the field of Emergency Management and Emergency Response.
The Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management (UASEM) puts students in the shoes of Emergency Managers and first responders to identify high-stakes problems and create novel solutions. In spring of 2013 Rodolfo Elizondo (Principal) and Robert Magliaro (Assistant Principal) with a small, but dedicated staff, began building the foundations of the first high school for Emergency Management in the United States.
Much like the Emergency Management industry itself, UASEM experienced some growing pains in our early days. Our small staff would meet in different restaurants and coffee houses around New York City, as the school did not yet have a physical space. Our founding staff would work all day at their other schools, then meet after work to review potential staff hires and build curriculum for each subject. A main priority was to bring emergency management to life in all subjects, from art to math. We wanted students to feel and experience the mission of our school across all content areas. The focus then became, what does emergency management look like for a high school student living in NYC?
In the summer of 2013 the staff and administration from UASEM made over 100 home visits to each of our incoming freshman’s homes. We welcomed each student and family with a school polo and had open conversations about expectations and how UASEM would not just be an average New York City high school experience. I have to admit, I was not a fan of traveling all over the five boroughs of New York City, but what a great way to learn about your incoming students. Families were eager to share information about each student’s learning habits, academic strengths and weaknesses. I realized at this point, I was going to be a part of something special.
Curriculum and Collaboration
One of the most frequently asked questions is how we developed our high school curriculum. I wish I could take the credit, or tell you I am an emergency management genius, but this is clearly not the case. I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity and access to some of New York City’s greatest emergency management practitioners. I can still remember my first meeting with our founding board members for our first curriculum review. My hands damp with sweat, wondering if my vision for this program would meet their expectations, what if I miss the mark? Walking into that room and meeting Kelly McKinney, Anita Shear (NYC Emergency Management), Shawn Waters (FEMA), Ali Gheith, Chuck Frank (MCNY) and Jerry McCarthy (Port Authority) for the first time was inspiring. They are as introspective as they are brilliant with their craft. Knowing that this was my first attempt at creating a rigorous four year sequenced curriculum, they left me with some good actionable feedback and a boost of self-confidence. The general consensus of that meeting was to build more authentic classroom experiences and tie them to external trips and internships. Ultimately we decided to use FEMA Independent Study Courses as the foundation for our 9th and 10th grade curriculum. Students would then pick a pathway of study for their final two years.
CLICK HERE for the Year one Freshmen Curriculum Snapshot
Year one passed with the blink of an eye. It was a successful year, with the help and guidance of our partners and board members. Our students learned about emergencies and disasters that impact residents in NYC and in their own communities. Students were not only able to talk about preparedness, they were able to lead discussions on the topic. As our first school year began to wind down, we were able to collaborate with FEMA region 2 on a PrepareAthon project.
Developing a solid curriculum with stakeholders is good for student learning and driving instruction. What makes a GREAT curriculum is allowing students to implement all of the skills and content that they have learned. This is precisely what happened in April of 2014. Students with the help of staff at NYC Emergency Management created a short 10 question survey to measure household preparedness across New York City and encouraged residents to enroll in “Notify NYC,” New York City’s emergency notification system. In collaboration with NYC Emergency Management and FEMA region 2, all the students and staff at UASEM hit the road. Students collected data from several hundred New Yorkers and handed out New York City Emergency Management’s “Ready New York” material, including making family emergency plans and building go-bags.
As students sat in their Emergency Management class, recording and analyzing the data they collected, the side conversation from students was electrifying (if you’re a teacher, or know a teacher well, these are the moments we live for). Without any teacher prompting the students, made all the right inferences and organically began discussing what the next steps should be. The results of the survey are no surprise, the majority of people surveyed were not prepared for any type of disaster, even residents of neighborhoods impacted by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
During our class PreparAthon debrief, students expressed concern and even frustration over the amount of people who had survived Hurricane Sandy just two years prior, and still had not learned their lesson. What the students failed to recognize was the true objective of this project. Students were able to take all of the soft skills and industry knowledge they learned over the school year, go out into the public and engage total strangers (adults no less) to talk about preparedness. The final weeks of school were spent taking the data they collected and creating a public awareness campaign.
Work Based Learning Experiences
Career and Technical Education programs place a major emphasis on work-based learning programming to provide students with real-life work experiences where they can apply academic and technical skills and develop their employability. UASEM is no different. Since the program’s inception, UASEM has cultivated partnerships with numerous emergency industry organizations around New York City, and beyond, to bring work based learning into UASEM classrooms, and UASEM students into workplaces. Work Based Learning can include a variety of Career Awareness opportunities such as guest speakers, career days, mentoring, or work place tours. UASEM has been honored to host a wide variety of guest speakers, but the true star of the show each year is Christina Curry, CEO of the Harlem Independent Living Center, who speaks to students during the 9th grade DAFN unit. Other highlights include our annual Career Week which did not slow down during the 2020-21 virtual school year. UASEM hosted an all virtual Career Day with over 25 guest speakers “Zooming-in” with classes throughout the day. Regular workplace tours are also a regular part of our programming including an annual tour of NYC Emergency Management’s Emergency Operations Center, Watch Command, Press Room, and Mayor’s Conference center. The other annual highlight is the trip to the FDNY’s Training Academy, “The Rock” on Randall’s Island. Students participate in a “Firefighter for a Day” program, moving from station to station around the academy grounds learning and experiencing firsthand some of the skills and experiences of probationary firefighters such as forcible entry, search and rescue, rappelling, and hoseline advancement.
UASEM also maintains some excellent career exploration opportunities via BSA’s Explorers program. UASEM has maintained an active FDNY Explorers program and NYPD Explorers program for years. Operating as an afterschool program, students in the FDNY club have a “home base” in FDNY’s Duane Street (E7/L1) firehouse. Similarly, NYPD Explorers work with officers in the 5th precinct. In both cases, they receive regular hands-on skills training, volunteer opportunities, and leadership experiences to prepare them for a career in either agency.
On the more advanced level of the WBL continuum is the Career Preparation activities such as workplace challenges and internships. In the past few years, UASEM students have had the opportunity to test new radio and security systems technology at Motorola Solutions via a workplace challenge. Motorola designed a fun “scavenger hunt” activity that had students searching for targets through the rooms and areas surrounding their Brooklyn offices, while maintaining constant radio contact with the “home base” command team who could watch their teams’ every move.
Internships remain the holy grail of work based learning opportunities, and at UASEM we’ve been lucky to maintain some excellent relationships with employers who have hosted UASEM interns for several years now. In past years, UASEM interns have worked with a variety of agencies and organizations such as NYCEM, NYC DOE EMU, NYCHA EM, NYC DOHMH, Lucius Pitkin Inc, Warnable Solutions, Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, among others. Our foremost partners in this internship program are NYC Emergency Management (NYCEM), and NYC Dept. of Education’s Emergency Management Unit (NYC DOE’s Emergency Management Unit). NYCEM has hosted anywhere from three to six UASEM upperclassmen on an annual basis during the spring semester or summer. Students embed in a variety of offices within NYCEM and work anywhere from 15-25 hours per week supporting NYCEM operations. Similarly, NYC DOE’s Emergency Management Unit has hosted UASEM students for multiple years. A recurring task for UASEM interns involves assessing NYC DOE schools that are designated emergency shelters to ensure DAFN compliance and accessibility. Students who participate in the internship program consistently indicate it as being one of the most impactful experiences of their time at UASEM.
Of all the great extracurricular activities students participate in at UASEM, I have to admit that I am partial to the “Hands to Heart Teen CPR Team.” The concept came to light after the 11th grade class worked on a healthcare equity assignment in class. Students did a data dive and examined ambulance response times in and around New York City. Students found that the areas with the longest ambulance response times were areas with marginalized populations. Upon class discussion the majority of students identified living in these neighborhoods. Students became instantly invested in the conversation, we identified a “real world problem” impacting a majority of people in this school; now we need to come up with a “real world solution.” Students brainstormed and discussed ideas for days, until a student group suggested starting with the highest priority EMS calls (cardiac arrest and choking) and working down. Acknowledging all the variables involved in ambulance response times, the idea to try to maintain heart function via CPR until an ambulance arrived was born. Students (with the help of staff) researched equipment and resources they would need and wrote a proposal for a “Passion Grant” to the SHIPPY Foundation. With the generosity of the SHIPPY Foundation and a $25,000 grant, the FIRST national teen CPR team began.
Hands to Heart offers AHA Hands-nly CPR training free of charge. To date the team has trained 1,083 New Yorkers. We have worked with community groups and other schools across the city. The students demonstrated true resilience during quarantine. The team created a program on Zoom called “Family CPR Nights.” It was a play on family game night. Families that participated loved the idea, especially during the peak of the pandemic. Students walked the participants through each step, even how to make a homemade manikin.
Of the 1,083 people trained by the Hands to Heart team, we know of one survival story. A student took the Hands-Only CPR training in the Spring of 2019 at UASEM, and used the skill on a 3 year old child that summer. We were happy to learn that the child made a full recovery after a short stay in the hospital. Our CPR team is also now expanding with a second chapter to open in a Bronx Middle School (6th to 8th grades) in a few weeks. It is very empowering for students to see what a small group of likeminded teens can do when they work together and believe in their purpose.
Webster’s definition of hope is “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true”. Working with the students at UASEM over the past eight years has given me great hope for the next generation of first responders and emergency managers we are preparing for the field. They are a thoughtful, empathetic, smart, and resilient young group. One of the most recent examples of their resilience was the one year anniversary of COVID-19 in New York City. Our students come from some of the most impacted areas of NYC. Several lost family members and friends during the pandemic, and were unable to mourn their losses in traditional fashion. The students asked for help, they wanted to do something “big” not just for their losses, but for everyone.
It took a group of 10 students about two days to formulate a plan. They decided they needed to include every single New York City resident lost in the pandemic as a beam of light. The plan was to write the word HOPE on the school’s athletic field in 26 foot letters, using just over 30,000 lights (one for each COVID related death within NYC). With help from school staff, a drone, and the generous donations from school partners like The SHIPPY foundation, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital (Downtown Campus), students were able to bring their vision to life. It took two days to create, and several obstacles that needed to be overcome, but the end result was breathtaking.
As we pivot back into fully in-person instruction for the 2021-22 school year, UASEM is guided by the hope signified in those 30,000 lights glowing brightly along the Manhattan skyline. There is a recognition that the pandemic has greatly changed the world in general, and both education and emergency management specifically, and that UASEM has a responsibility to carry on with its mission to prepare the next generation of emergency managers and first responders for the new world that lies ahead. While it remains uncertain exactly what this new world will look like, we can say confidently that hope burns brightly in our students’ hearts. As teachers, we will continue to cultivate this hope so that our students graduate into this new world ready to ensure a brighter future for us all. ❦
About Salvatore Pulglisi
Just over 20 years ago, a 23 year old EMT from Queens responded to a call for help in lower Manhattan that would change his life.
Arriving on scene at the moment of the second plane’s impact into the World Trade Center, Sal Puglisi began an immediate triage of patients. The days that followed would eventually change the trajectory of his personal and professional life.
Now Sal reports to lower Manhattan every day for a different calling — this time at the Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management (UASEM) as Mr. Puglisi, Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher for Emergency Management and Medicine.
Mr. Puglisi found his way to UASEM after a series of signs, which he attributes to one of his lost partners, Keith, guiding the way for him. Before 9/11, Sal had given college a try and decided it wasn’t for him. Instead, he took an EMT course, immediately fell in love with the work, and served as an EMT for NY Presbyterian. The act of being a first responder in 9/11, however, shifted his priorities and led him to give college another try. With a greater sense of purpose this time, Sal pursued a degree in Social Psychology and Statistics at Queens College. At the behest of his then girlfriend and now wife, he applied for the NYC Teaching Fellows. After the interview was complete, he learned that one of the teachers who interviewed him had taught alongside Keith’s mother. To this day it’s a running joke that Keith got Sal his first teaching job.
Six years later, Sal was itching for a new opportunity. In the pile of his prospects was a packet highlighting schools to open in the DOE that year. As he hurried from one thing to the next, the packet fell onto the floor and opened up directly to the page for Manhattan. There staring back at him was the introduction to UASEM. Given its connection to his passion for emergency medicine, he called up the principal to inquire about a position in Special Education. Eight minutes later Rudy called back. The position was filled already, but would Sal want to give teaching Career and Technical Education (CTE) a try? He was hired in May and spent the summer before the school opened creating the vision for emergency medicine and establishing the crucial partnerships he knew students would need to really understand the field.
Of special importance to him was the curriculum. In Sal’s eyes, it had to engage students like he was — the ones who didn’t like school and didn’t see the purpose. He believed that if students could see that they had the power to contribute to the world in an important and meaningful way, that would contribute to the legacy of those he lost. After more than 8 years at UASEM, Mr. Puglisi has seen students who began in familiar places of apathy now passionately pursuing service roles in the military, Americorps, FEMA, or the Red Cross.
As one who never rests, Sal is hungry to continue the growth of the Emergency Medicine pathway at SEM, and on a larger scale the resilience of New York City. A partnership with BMCC now allows students to be certified EMTs upon graduation, which is a role with national vacancies that UASEM students will be poised to fill. Sal and his students have an eye on equity and work toward equipping communities with tools for preparedness and resilience. UASEM students are formulating student-led trainings in Hands-Only CPR and Stop the Bleed in neighborhoods with the slowest emergency response times, and in populations prone to cardiac arrest.
The work at UASEM is a small example of UA’s CTE dreams come to life. Students discover passions, explore them with expert instructors, learn through internships in the field, and build the credentials that become the stepping stones to social and economic mobility.