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Teachers carry on in gulf

Justin Tardiff | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

When 2005 Notre Dame graduate Melissa Hentges began teaching in New Orleans last fall, she had no idea of the challenges that would face her in the coming months. As a part of Teach for America, a nationwide program of more than 3,500 corps members, Hentges began teaching at a local elementary school. However, a mere five days after classes began, nature forced New Orleans to evacuate as Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Pre-Katrina, the Teach for America program had 150 corps members in and around New Orleans. Floods from the disaster damaged the school where Hentges taught beyond repair, and she was forced find another way to serve. Some corps members returned to an outlying parish school in New Orleans that Katrina left unscathed; others worked for disaster recovery centers. Hentges, however, chose to work in Houston. She and 35 corps members chartered a school for New Orleans students who would remain – at least temporarily – in the city to which they had been evacuated. The volunteers acquired a school building that had recently been closed due to low enrollment, a surprisingly nice facility, Hentges said. The quickly obtained one-year charter allowed classes to begin Oct. 3, a date that could have been earlier if not for Hurricane Rita. Although none of her former students would follow her to the charter school, Hentges said she does recall seeing four or five of them in the Astrodome in Houston. While Hentges remains unaware of the location of many, she said she has located a few more former students in Atlanta and Dallas. As for her current students in Houston, Hentges said many of their families are not yet stable in their new environment. Some families still remain in hotels. Housing is not yet stable in New Orleans, so returning in the immediate future is not an option, although Hentges said the vast majority wish to return to their home.”A lot of kids are very homesick,” Hentges said. “It’s only natural, coming from an area where the people have so much pride in their culture and their city.”During the first few weeks of classes, teachers placed more emphasis on the needs of students than on covering new material. As a kindergarten teacher, Hentges said she allowed her students to nap if needed, or talk to the in-house psychologist about issues resulting from the hurricane.The school received a number of grants for group therapy, and Hentges said she hopes this will make a real impact on the children. Since Teach for America focuses on those areas most in need, Hentges said she feels the students have been placed in a tremendously tough situation, realizing many already had issues to deal with before Katrina. Hentges made a few trips back to New Orleans since the devastation of the hurricane. She said while the breadth of the destruction was difficult to witness, the city has been making a slow but steady comeback.”One month after, the city was hard for me to see,” Hentges said. “There are definitely still areas that need to be cleaned up, but the city is beginning to show signs of vibrancy.”Despite the challenges, Hentges said she still feels lucky in her opportunity to serve.”Teach for America is a great experience,” she said. “If you are interested in any aspects of education, I would definitely recommend it. Once you walk into the classroom, you realize that it is not only about education, you are dealing with so many social issues.”