Sunday, August 16, 2009

This summer, NLU's Partnership with NOLA Schools Project organized 2 teams to New Orleans. I am just returning from the second week with our largest group to date in 3 summers of work in NOLA. 20 NLU students, alumni, faculty and "supporters of the service work" worked with teachers at Arthur Ashe and S.J. Green Elementary Charter Schools. These K - 8th grade schools were preparing for the first week of school, which begins August 17. NLU was in NOLA just in time. Both of these charters are managed by First Line Schools, responsible for hiring administrators, teachers and support staff. First Line Schools works with New Orleans OUTREACH whose work involves all afterschool and off campus activities for the children, as well as coordination of all community involvement, including volunteers to the 2 schools.

I am writing my reflections now, as the week has come to an end. I always have good intentions of writing daily, but the work is labor intense, and the walking to and from the schools from the streetcar in the August heat of the city is exhausting. It is not unusual to return to our wonderful accommodations at the end of the day and take a quick nap before we prepare for dinner together.

Day 1: 14 of us boarded planes on Sunday the 9th and arrived at the Bienville House, our "home" for 7 days. 6 traveled via Amtrack and van. After settling in, we had a full day to explore and become accustomed to the weather, the city and each other, as this was truly a diverse team. There were 4 sets of mothers and daughters (including mine), 2 sets of mothers and sons (including me), a yoga instructor, MAT students, current teachers, former teachers and school volunteers.

At the Bienville House Hotel we were welcomed by Gail Glickman, special needs teacher at S.J. Green Charter School, who moved from Chicago 2 years ago and is an alum of NLU. I met her this past June on my fligtht from Chicago to NOLA. She helped to arrange our work with Arthru Ashe and S.J. Green Charter Schools.

Day 2: All were ready to work by 9 am Monday morning. Half the team explored the Magazine bus route to Amelia street and walked the 4 blocks (everything in NOLA is 4 blocks away from something) to Arthur Ashe School. This old NOLA public school building will be a 2 year temporary site for this school as a new, "green" building is in the works. (These new buildings promise to be state of the art in many ways. I have been following the progress of these ecologically designed and developed centers of learning and NOLA will truly be a premier public school district when builiding is completed in 2 - 4 years. )

The other have half of our 20 traveled in my husband's van as he traveled to NOLA with tools for work at an early childhood center I "adopted" 3 years ago - Happy Times Preschool. At Ashe we worked in 3rd floor 6th - 8th grade Language Arts, Math and Social Studies classrooms. The teachers (2 from the Chicagoland area) required complete set-up - from moving in desks, chairs, filing cabinets and supplies, to organizing books, putting up bulletin boards, posters and labeling shelves for the children. New Orleans OUTREACH bought us our first lunch in NOLA.

We worked until the teachers were ready to leave.

Day 3: NOLA OUTREACH had scheduled our team to work with both schools - so today we arrived at S.J. Green. To get here, we traveled by streetcar to Valencia street and walked (4 blocks) to the school. Green is famous state-wide for its edible garden. The children in all grades work together to plant. nurture and harvest the extensive variety of produce. This food is then used in the daily lunch and snack program. The success of this project is also due to its volunteer public committee, headed by Emiril (renowned NOLA chef). The NOPSD board of education was so impressed with the garden that last year it allocated funds to Green to rehab the kitchen to become a working area for the children, I can't wait to return to Green next summer to learn more how nutrition education was integrated into the curriculum.

Our work here involved setting up classrooms and preparing folders for that evenings parent meetings, organizing the special education classroom, moving art supplies from the dance floor to the storage closet and organizing books.

While most of us were at Green, about 6 on our team traveled with my husband, Fred,to Happy Times Preschool. There they played with the children, modeling appropriate interactions for the teachers, only half of the staff having more than high school degrees. I have written about the school in previous blogs, and members of the July NLU team have also reflected on the needs of the children and staff. Fred was able to spend time with Director, Rocky. to prepare for the week's work.

Day 4: Each day we were divided between a K- 8 elementary school and a preschool. In the 3 years that I have been bringing service teams to NOLA, I have reached out to educators serving children birth through grade 12. I plan the summer trips in June during visits to these schools. The school with the most urgent needs are selected for the teams' work.

Wednesday, Tyler, Nina, Angela and Bonnie traveled with Fred to Happy Times to finish the construction work there, Linda, Elizabeth, Katie, Eli, Mia, Kristen, Karima, Kennen, Eunice, Joey, Judith, Phyllis, Alice and Janice and I returned to Arthur Ashe school. We were excited to do this because we promised the Ashe teachers we would help with specific projects. Laminting of posters and signs was completed at Green and transported to Ashe to be displayed on classroom walls. Hanging a hall-sized relief map of the world was the job of several of the team members. Others returned to the math and language arts classrooms to finish leveling and shelving books.

I, and 5 others, found ourselves working with the special needs teachers. On this particular day a newly hired teacher was informed that a back storage room was to be assigned her classroom for one child with severe behaviorial issues. The 6 year old girl had very limited vocabulary and her parents had been told she would not be included into the regular 1st grade classroom, but rather mainstreamed in part of the day. The girl would be assigned to Ms. Becky's backroom "classroom".

When Ms. Becky saw her space she (as well as members of the team) nearly cried. She needed help removing old boxes, shelves, cabinets, left-over, unused furniture. The walls,floor and windows were filthy. A small portion of the ceiling had collapsed. A corner of the room was partitioned off with metal shelf units, hiding the water system for the floor. It was impossible not to feel committed to this job. After clearing out the space, cleaning the walls, floor and windows. we began to paint the entire room with materials Becky purchased. The results were amazing. The fresh color and cleaned windows brought joy and life to the room.

Because of the humidity and heat, we could not finish 2nd coating the walls and windows. I decided to return to Ashe on Thursday even though we were scheduled for Green school.

The rest of the team successfully completing their work and the Ashe classrooms appeared to transform into real classrooms in just 2 days.

Day 5: Thursday I returned to Ashe with Tyler and Kennen. We finished painting the walls, window trim and I noticed that the floor had been waxed and a bulletin board and white board had been mounted to one of the walls. Although it was beginning to look like a classroom, I decided to paint a garden on the wall underneath the boards using paint from the art room. I hope these pictures show how we transformed this storage room into a little girls learning environment. My greatest joy was meeting the child who would share this space with Ms. Becky during the school year.

Today 6 of our team traveled to Royal Castle Kids Child Development Center. There Kristen Lems played her guitar and sang with the 3 to 5 year olds. with the help of Karima, Eli, Alice and Janice. Our yoga instructor, Phyllis, worked with the toddlers and Katie helped.

Fred and Mia returned to put finishing touches on the exterior door installed for the infant room.

Bonnie, Nina, Angela, Eunice, Elizabeth, Linda, and Judith worked at Green completing projects started on Tuesday. All felt accomplished. To celebrate the work of the week, several us met at our regular "hangout", Cafe Reconcile, in Central City, near KIPP Academy. You can read about this special Cafe in previous blogs. The Cafe prepares high school students to work in the food service industry. Wait staff, hostesses, even chefs are all in training to work in the cities extensive collection of restaurants. The food is excellant (you can watch your meal being prepared) and very affordablel. It is the hangout for NOLA volunteers who come from all over the US.

Day 6: DAY OFF ! This summer I decided to give the team a day to choose their own plans. Kristen Lems and her son and daughter spent the morning at Happy Times singing to the children. Others on the team (including my self with my husband, daughter and son) took time to explore the city. I learned from previous trips that downtime is important after working hared during the week. Friday saw many of us at museums, on tours to the Delta or plantations outside the city, sightseeing and shopping.

Day 7: Saturday - Our 5:00 pm flight allowed us some time to take streetcar tours through parts of the city we didn't get to see on our trips to the schools. We were lucky that the daily storms ended on Thursday making the moving around the city somewhat bearable.

As I reflect on this week, I am first grateful for the cohesiveness of this group. At no time did anyone find the work immpossible to do. Many creative stratgies were tested and accomplished. Each member came prepared to work daily and on time to leave. Each had a positive attitude and eager to meet and serve the needs of the teaching staff. The conversations were rich and flowing. We learned more about the NOLA public school district, about the charter schools and how people are surviving. NOLA depends on and is morst appreciative of its volunteers. I also learned that our NLUNOLA blogs preceeded us. Several adminstrators I spoke with had already viewed last sumemer's blog and were familiar with the work that NLU could provide. As 15 new schools are in the works for the next 5 years, there is much to do for the NOLA schools. I look forward to next summer.

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