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ACE teacher, alum meets with First Lady

Aaron Steiner | Thursday, March 22, 2007

Notre Dame alumna Liz Stowe has had her fair share of extraordinary experiences in recent years, including living through Hurricane Katrina as a second grade teacher in Mississippi. She can add meeting the First Lady to her list.

A second-year participant in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program – a two-year post-graduate service program that allows participants to teach in Catholic schools across the country – Stowe has spent nearly two years in Pascagoula, Miss., where she has helped those struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

A year and a half after the hurricane, Stowe is a few months away from ending her term in Mississippi. Schools and students along the Gulf Coast continue to struggle, Stowe said, and First Lady Laura Bush recently assessed the state of schools and the obstacles they still face.

Stowe said Bush’s secretary called her personally to invite her to meet the First Lady on Feb. 22.

“[Her secretary] invited me to have lunch with the First Lady, [a local congressman] and eight other representatives from schools along the Gulf Coast,” Stowe said.

Bush has been affiliated with ACE since 2001, when the Laura Bush Scholarship was established. The award is given to a student attending an ACE-participating school in Texas, Bush’s home state.

“She wanted to know the condition of the [hurricane-affected] schools,” Stowe said, adding that the First Lady’s press secretary traveled with her and later wrote a report detailing their findings.

Bush’s familiarity with ACE and another similar post-graduate teaching opportunity, Teach for America, led her to quiz Stowe on differences between the two different programs during their conversation.

“As a principal from another Catholic school said his greatest need was good teachers, Mrs. Bush turned to me and asked about the ACE program,” Stowe said. “She asked something like, ‘Now do you get as much support through ACE as you would through Teach for America?’

“I was able to tell her that we learn the current best practices … while we gain experience in the classroom,” Stowe said. “I told her that this all takes place with the support built into the program through our faculty, pastoral staff, principals, mentor teachers and the community in which we live.”

Stowe said the First Lady was receptive to the positive things she had to say about ACE.

“I think she was impressed because they both have some things that are similar, but some [of the support ACE provides] isn’t found in the Teach for America program,” Stowe said.

As the only teacher present during the lunch, Stowe said she brought a different perspective to the discussion than the principals and representatives of schools there.

“Some of the principals were talking numbers,” Stowe said. “As an administrator, that’s what’s on their minds. As a teacher, I had the opportunity to talk about the kids … and what I thought are the biggest needs for them.”

Stowe said she feels the children’s specific day-to-day concerns go unnoticed while administrators think about enrollment numbers, budgets and the like.

“Although they are there for the children … I feel the needs of the kids are overlooked,” Stowe said.

Stowe said she shared the feelings of her students with Bush in the form of journal entries, reflecting on the time immediately before the storm, and during and after the hurricane hit.

“My students made a Katrina book at the beginning of the year with each of their experiences,” Stowe said. “We made another [copy] for Mrs. Bush, so we were able to share our stories with the First Lady. I thought it would be great for her to see accounts of the storm from the eyes of a seven-year-old.”

Stowe said these accounts are moving reflections of the struggles her students face.

“The children in this area are hurting,” she said. “When they lost their homes and their schools, they lost their worlds.”

She said her students are far from recovering from the trauma.

“When it storms during the school day, we gather on the rug and talk about why we are safe,” Stowe said. “One of my students once asked, ‘Ms. Stowe, when is the water going to come through the windows?’ I couldn’t tell him it was not going to, as I know he has already experienced this at seven years old.”

Throughout the meeting, Stowe said she was impressed by Bush’s friendly personality and concern for the issues discussed.

“She genuinely cared about what was going on, the problems and issues that people are facing,” Stowe said, describing her as a maternal figure who was easy to talk to. “Mrs. Bush was a very nice woman. … She related to the people; she wanted to hear their stories.”

Bush did bring a small entourage, as she does wherever she travels, Stowe said.

“There was only one secret service agent in the room, so it wasn’t very noticeable,” Stowe said of the security.

In addition to the lunch, the First Lady visited a public school in the area and the nearby Boys and Girls Club, Stowe said.

While meeting Bush was certainly a special occasion, Stowe said she was more pleased to be able to relate her students’ stories and their needs to the First Lady.

“I think I was most honored to represent the kids,” she said.

During the rest of her time in Mississippi, Stowe said she hopes to be as much help as possible to the students and community.

“I hope that I can be fully present for the kids and their needs, as well as the community,” she said. “It’s been an amazing opportunity to be here during this time. … I feel blessed to have been placed here.”