At school for storm evacuees, hugs before homework
BATON ROUGE, LA. AND BAY ST. LOUIS, MISS.
Jacqueline MacDonald got the news on a Saturday: She was to be principal of a new Baton Rouge school composed entirely of teachers and students evacuated from New Orleans.Skip to next paragraph
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By Monday, Mayfair Elementary had opened its doors: a virtually empty former school building with a few desks and chairs. And on Tuesday, the first 43 students showed up for classes.
Two weeks later, things at Mayfair are still a bit disorderly - there are only two computers, and the makeshift offices are filled with constantly arriving boxes of materials - but the school has become a bustling center of learning for nearly 200 children who need stability.
Kindergarteners trace outlines of their hands and cut them out to make a chain, while first graders eagerly join in a daily recital of their 5s, 10s, vowels, and consonants.
"Our motto is to learn, laugh, and love again, and I think that's what's happening in my school," says Ms. MacDonald, a powerhouse of energy and warmth who is the school's emotional center.
Mayfair is one of two schools for Katrina evacuees in the East Baton Rouge Parish District, and part of a growing legion of efforts in Baton Rouge and around the country to help one subgroup of Katrina evacuees: children. Projects focus on everything from reopening schools and day care centers to creating "safe play areas" in shelters, organizing counseling, and fielding donations of books, lesson plans, and educational materials.
For children still living in shelters, or dealing with the loss of their home, dispersal of their friends, and the destruction of their school, finding routine is key.
"Normal is the goal. Or as normal as we can get in these abnormal circumstances," says Thomas Tauras, an international programs officer with Save the Children, which is conducting its first emergency response within the US. Children affected by Katrina have similar needs to children in Aceh or Darfur, says Mr. Tauras: security, stability, places to learn and play, and counseling programs.
Save the Children is offering training, funding, and expertise to local children's groups in Louisiana and Mississippi. In Baton Rouge, the group helped get Mayfair and Scotlandville Elementary, another new school for evacuees, up and running.
While most of Scotlandville's students come from the large River Center shelter, Mayfair's tend to be living with relatives or friends, or holed up in hotels, says MacDonald, a former principal who was three weeks into teaching a fifth-grade class when she got the call to head Mayfair. The scattered geography and daily growing roster makes transportation and communication with parents a challenge. But MacDonald says within a few days she felt the school had passed the threshold into teaching, rather than just keeping kids busy.
"Homework is not a top priority; books are," she says. When one kindergartener can't stop crying, MacDonald gives him a bear hug. "When they come to us kicking and screaming, I just hold them," she explains. "That's what they need."
She and others at the school say it helps that both the children and teachers all hail from New Orleans. Instead of being outsiders, they are bonded by experience.