The disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina has brought together two schools from opposite ends of the country. The staff and students at Sebago Elementary School have adopted a “sister school” in the New Orleans area. Through an exchange of letters and photos students at both the Sebago Elementary and Jefferson Elementary will learn a lot about each other and their schools and states this year, but most importantly the students will learn first hand about how much we as Americans care about one another.
While in Louisiana with the Red Cross I wrote a daily journal for MaineToday.com called “Helping Katrina’s Victims”. Principle Andrea Lane of Sebago Elementary School was one of my many readers in Maine, and she sent me an e-mail on September 26th.
“At Sebago we are raising money for the hurricane victims by doing our usual Penny War. The students are also making friendship bracelets to send to a classroom there, and are wondering if you know of any school where there are lots of displaced kids who would like to connect with us here in Maine,” she said. “Please let us know if you find a place for us to send the friendship bracelets. Thanks!”
A few days later, I received an e-mail from Frank Gorham, Superintendent of SAD61 in Naples. “…The District has recently purchased a math program for students in grades K-6. The former program is a 1997 edition of Mathematics. The student and teacher copies are in storage for now,” he said. “Is there a possibility that these editions could be used by a school in the [Hurricane Katrina] area? When you have time, let me know who I might contact or who might be interested. Be safe.”
Hurricane Katrina disrupts schooling for thousands
When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the New Orleans area it devastated homes, schools and businesses there. Strong winds uprooted trees and literally ripped roofs off buildings. Floodwaters from the storm surge and heavy rains drowned entire neighborhoods. Parts of the city were under water for weeks, and thousands of buildings are no longer safe and will have to be demolished. Schools were not spared, and in some Parishes nearly all the school buildings were destroyed.
Locating a school in need in the Louisiana Gulf as Lane had requested was not a problem since there were so many, and I focused on the New Orleans area where I was working with the Red Cross at the time. Earlier I had met Debbie Fox, a teacher from Jefferson Parish. She had lost her home in Jefferson Parish and was commuting 100 miles each way from a hotel in Denham Springs near Baton Rouge to her school in Jefferson Parish each day. She suggested that I contact her principal at Jefferson Elementary School, Carolyn O’Hare.
Jefferson Elementary is in Jefferson Parish and the school is located in a suburb just west of New Orleans. According to Dr. Diane Roussel, Superintendent of Public Schools for Jefferson Parish, they suffered $50 million in damage to their 88 school buildings. Every school was damaged to one degree or another, with 7 schools suffering major damage, 34 suffering serious damage but the damaged part (e.g. - a gym or wing) could be isolated so that part of the school can be used, while 47 schools suffered minor flooding or roof damage. The latter two groups of 81 schools were able to open on October 3 for the normal school year. The remaining seven schools cannot be used without major repair and/or renovation work, and may open in the 2006-2007 school year.
Jefferson Elementary School opens its doors to hurricane victims
Jefferson Elementary School was one of the lucky ones in the Parish. It suffered only minor damage and was able to reopen on schedule. “There was water damage to the first floor and we had to take up our carpet. Also, there was heavy tree damage all over the school property but thankfully no major roof damage,” Principal O’Hare told me in her office on opening day of school. “Right after Katrina went through the 82nd Airborne sent a crew of soldiers to help. They cut up all the downed trees and removed them so that we could use the school grounds. All of my teachers have returned, although many of them lost their homes and are living in temporary quarters.”
“I have been principal here for twenty years, and lived through many storms. Hurricane Katrina is the worst I have ever seen,” she continued. “Our normal enrollment in grades Kindergarten through 5th is 450 students. On our first day of school 275 students showed up, and as of November 1st we have 460 students enrolled and are at 101% of our normal enrollment. We are taking in students from other parts of Jefferson Parish as well as the heavily damaged areas of New Orleans Parish, St Bernard Parish, and Plaquemines Parish who have lost their homes and their schools, and I expect that there will be more each day. About 60% of our students are from Jefferson Parish and the rest are from these other areas hit by the hurricane.”
O’Hare told how many students are showing up for school with just the clothes on their backs. They have lost everything but their parents want them to continue their education and have found the closest open school to their former homes. She told me about extra support that they were providing for their storm victims. Many of the students have suffered mental trauma from their experiences with Hurricane Katrina, and the school is helping students deal with it. O’Hare showed me a picture drawn by an eight-year old student that is nothing but housetops surrounded by floodwaters.
“A psychologist came in today to hold some group sessions with students,” she said. She is encouraged by the reports coming back to her. She added; “A teacher reported today how very well behaved our new students were and how well they were adjusting to the new school.”
She continued; “I am presently washing three big loads of school uniform shirts given to me by former students that will be distributed tomorrow to our new students and returning students who have lost their clothes in flooded and damaged homes. There are so many details to this disaster that you cannot imagine until they casually surface. This is ongoing!”
O’Hare was very excited to hear of the Sebago Elementary School offer to adopt them and the prospect of sharing letters between their students. The two principals were able a few days later to talk on the phone and exchange e-mails and work out the details.
Sebago Elementary School helps
The 130 students at Sebago Elementary are just as excited as Principal Lane about their new “sister school.” Every year the Kindergarten through 6th grade classes compete in “Penny Wars” to see which class can collect the most pennies in big plastic pails. The money collected is then donated to a charitable cause.
“We…have raised over $1,000 so far this week with pennies! We’ve been rolling [pennies into paper coin tubes] all day today,” Lane reported to me in an e-mail. Denise Olsen and the Student Council worked hard on this project and it was a huge success. Olsen said that the total raised in this year’s campaign was $1,156.00, and this year Sebago Elementary students sent the money collected to their new “sister school” in Louisiana via the Red Cross and earmarked for Jefferson Elementary.
In addition to their Penny Wars Ms. Bannon, one of Sebago Elementary parent volunteers organized a school-wide effort to make friendship bracelets for the kids at Jefferson Elementary. Students volunteered to stay in during recess to make bracelets, and there were some bracelet-making parties outside school as well. So far, more than 100 bracelets have been made with a goal of 450 so that every Jefferson Elementary student can have one as a token of the care and concern that their sister school in Maine has for them. Backpacks with basic school supplies are also being assembled which will be sent south when done.
Kathy Harmon, the Second Grade teacher at Sebago Elementary has taken photos of the Sebago Elementary children and students have begun writing letters and drawing pictures to send to Jefferson Elementary.
The first shipment of books and money heads south
Diane McLaughlin, one of the permanent substitute teachers at Sebago Elementary, made arrangements through her husband Bob to ship 88 boxes of math books that SAD61 Superintendent Frank Gorham had promised for Jefferson Elementary. The shipment went out on October 17 and was received the end of the next week in Louisiana.
O’Hare called Lane and confirmed that the Federal Express shipment had arrived, and looks forward to the other exchanges between the two schools. She said; “Our students will know a lot more about Maine when this semester is over. We are working out the details for the donation and communication among our students. This is going to be a fun-filled year. We will have so many new adventures meeting and greeting people and new students.”
And Lane is just as enthusiastic about the interaction that her Sebago students will have, learning about Louisiana and meeting new friends to share experiences with. As terrible as Hurricane Katrina was, it has opened new doors and created new friends and relationships.
This article was edited and published in the Portland Press Herald on November 17, 2005 under the title "Sebago Elementary adopts Katrina-damaged school".
Last updated December 29, 2005
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2005, Allen Crabtree