Today was a tough one at Juniata Park Academy.
The main order of business was explaining to the school’s students that one of their teachers wouldn’t be around anymore.
First-grade teacher Ellen Greenberg was found dead in her Manayunk apartment last week.
When it comes to explaining a teacher’s death to a first-grader, it’s best to keep it simple.
That’s what Deborah James, director of counseling for the Philadelphia School District, says she’s learned from experience, adding that young students in these types of situations request very little information.
“Sometimes, the more simple the conversation, the easier it is for them to understand,” James said.
Their questions are usually very basic like “Did the person go to heaven?” and “Is his/her family OK?”
Those are just a few of the types of thoughts that swirled around inside the minds of the school’s students today. Because of snow days last week, this was the kids’ first day back without Greenberg, 27, who was found stabbed to death inside her Venice Lofts apartment on Wednesday night.
Philadelphia Police have deemed the case “suspicious” and are still trying to determine whether the death was a homicide or suicide.
James says a crisis response team began working with students and staff this morning at the K-8 school on East Hunting Park Avenue. The 10-person team consists of the school’s principal, school psychologists, school guidance counselors as well as outside psychologists and counselors.
School officials wouldn’t disclose specifics about conditions at Juniata, but they said rooms are set up inside the school for staff and students to talk with counselors about their loss. During that time, James said the students are encouraged to write, draw and communicate with counselors.
James says a big part of the process is listening to the school staff’s ideas on how to handle the tough task.
“The principal is usually very key to how the facts are communicated to our children,” James said. “We rely very heavily on school staff to let the crisis team know what’s the best approach to take.”
Both English-speaking and bilingual staff have been assigned to the crisis team due to the school’s diverse community.
After talking with the on-site coordinator at Juniata, James reported this afternoon that “things are going as well as to be expected considering the incident.”
All adults in the school building have been given a crisis guide of sorts to help them address certain questions from students with age-appropriate responses. James says older students tend to ask adults for more detail in these types of situations.
“We try to respect the nature of the incident and respect that these kids are growing and require more information,” James said. “It’s about giving them balance.”
Each day, the on-site coordinator will meet with the principal and the crisis team to “get a pulse” as to how the day went. James says the team will then identify certain staff members or students who may need additional support. The parents of those students will then be notified and the team will work to help those students or staff members work through what they are feeling.
The crisis team will continue to report to Juniata Park Academy until they are no longer needed.
Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the School District community is “deeply saddened” by Greenberg’s death.
“Colleagues describe Ellen as a dedicated teacher who loved her profession and inspired her students to do their best,” Gallard said.
Greenberg’s friends and co-workers have been offering condolences to the Greenberg family through an online memorial page.
The latest post reads: “Her millon dollar smile will be in our hearts, forever.”
Did you know Ellen Greenberg? If so, you are invited to write about your memories and feelings in the comment space below.