As the graduates of Millennium High School in Lower Manhattan danced through the night earlier this month, they celebrated not just themselves, but also the school that grew out of the rubble of Sept. 11.
The prom, explained Stephanie Robayo, 17, is "really a celebration of our school."
Tomorrow,, almost five years after the twin towers fell and parents raced to evacuate their children from Public School 234 and other local schools, Millennium will have its first graduation. Eighty-four of 85 seniors are on their way to places like Smith, Skidmore and Syracuse, as well as to colleges in the City University and State University systems.
This record contrasts sharply with city high school graduation rates of 53 percent last year, and delighted parents call it a tribute to a new high school established in 2002 as the first public school to open in Lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks, and the first high school to give admissions preference to students south of Houston Street.
Creating a new school was far from anyone's mind on the day that the terrorists struck. But local residents say that Millennium has helped them recover from that terrible day, and turn their neighborhood back into a place where children can thrive.
"Our community is on some levels suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder," said Angela Benfield, the school's parent coordinator and a local resident. "To have the school down here is a relief."
Millennium was born in the seemingly endless stream of meetings after Sept. 11, 2001, when local school officials were trying to find places for students displaced from P.S. 234 in TriBeCa, which was closed after the attack. The discussions focused on a parent complaint that predated the attack: the lack of a good neighborhood high school for students who live in downtown Manhattan.
Roy Moskowitz, then deputy superintendent of District 2 in Manhattan, and Madelyn Wils, then chairwoman of Community Board 1, suggested Lower Manhattan as the location for one of several small schools being developed by New Visions for Public Schools, a nonprofit group. In addition to grant money from New Visions, supporters eventually raised $16 million by public and private sources, including the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the city and political leaders. "It was clear to me that rebuilding after 9/11 meant more than simply getting kids back into schools," Mr. Moskowitz said. "There was a real need to re-establish downtown as a viable community for people to live in and there was a real need psychologically to send signals to people living downtown as well as everyone living in New York City that great things can happen even in the face of disaster."
Millennium was formally established in the fall of 2002, but without a permanent home. So classes began with 96 students in a temporary space on the second floor of the Art and Design High School in Midtown. Robert Rhodes, who had been the assistant principal of a small East Side school, became the principal.
"I sort of took a leap of faith by sending my son there," said Rhonda Erb, the parent association president. "I felt that Robert Rhodes had a very definite plan."
Mr. Rhodes, 38, favored a traditional college preparatory curriculum, with students required to take three years of a foreign language, and four years each of English, math, science and social studies.
Alia Dahhan, a senior, remembered the early days in temporary quarters, with Millennium students forming a contingent in the back two rows of the cafeteria.
"It was difficult because you're nervous about high school and you walk into a high school that's not yours," said Ms. Dahhan, 18. "You have all these other students staring at you saying, 'why are you in our school?' "
In spring 2003, Millennium leased space at 75 Broad Street, on three floors of a high-rise office building across the street from Goldman Sachs. By the fall, a new freshman class had arrived.
The 85,000-square-foot space has its own entrance and elevators, leading students directly to the 11th, 12th, and 13th floors, which are also connected by a center staircase. Each floor has checkered tile floors, lockers and spaces that can be used for study or recreation.
Mr. Rhodes said Millennium, whose student population is mostly white and Asian, was at home in the neighborhood. Banks and other firms have offered internships, and there have been numerous excursions to the nearby National Museum of the American Indian at Bowling Green.
He said that the school had more than 2,500 eighth graders apply for 140 places this year, the most ever, though he added that he still encounters concerns about safety.
"The most common question I'm asked on tours is, 'What do you guys do during fire drills?' " Mr. Rhodes said. "But I think the real question is, 'What would you do if there was a crisis downtown?' "
Safety concerns were far from the minds of seniors at the prom, held at Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. On the red carpet outside, Ms. Dahhan, bound for business studies at Pace University, mingled with her friends as they posed for pictures and hugged friends and teachers.
"No one's going to recognize me with my hair like this," said Ms. Dahhan, whose long straight locks showed no hint of their natural curl. Inside, her friends took more pictures as she glided down the marble steps leading to a ballroom.
"Just wait," she added, anticipating the moment when reggaetón would entice everyone to the dance floor. "Everyone's going to go crazy."
Almost two hours later, after rounds of reggaetón, as well as salsa and hip-hop, the students' hair stuck to their sweaty faces. Teachers and Mr. Rhodes watched from a far corner. Mr. Rhodes said he did not want to join the dancing because "I don't want to embarrass myself or mortify them."
Later, though, students dragged him to the floor. And he and the students celebrated four years building Millennium together.