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Hurricane impacts grads teaching in South

Karen Langley | Wednesday, September 14, 2005

When 2005 Notre Dame graduate Melissa Hentges began her two years of service with the Teach for America program three weeks ago in New Orleans, her new pupils made a lasting impression on her.

Seven-year old Bailey Jones, a quiet student with a toothless yet infectious smile, created intricate artistic projects. Jy’Nesha Lewis, a strong-minded six-year old, made sure each day that a hearing-impaired classmate understood what the class was doing. And Jy’Nesha’s brother, seven-year old Alvin Batise, was a natural leader. After months of preparation, Hentges had finally begun her two years of teaching a class of 30 New Orleans second graders.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29.

Hentges’ elementary school, as well as the housing project where many of her students lived, was located near a levee that broke. The school remains under five to seven feet of water, Hentges said.

Hentges is one of four 2005 Notre Dame grads participating in Teach for America in the New Orleans area. One hundred thirty-eight volunteers from the program were originally stationed in the area, but many have either followed the displaced New Orleans students to Baton Rouge and Houston or relocated to safer areas themselves.

While Bailey, Alvin and Jy’Nesha are safe in the Houston Astrodome, Hentges does not yet know the location of many of her students, or as she calls them, her children.

“It has been very emotionally trying to realistically think about the possibilities for my children and where they may or may not be,” she said.

Although her original school will not reopen in the foreseeable future, Hentges has elected to join the Greater New Orleans Recovery Corps-Houston. This group is a division of Teach for America’s “emergency corps.” which will serve displaced New Orleans students in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; St. John’s Parish, Louisiana; and Houston, Texas. New Orleans corps members had the option of either joining the Recovery Corps or being reassigned to another region in the country.

“I knew that I wanted to continue serving New Orleans students,” she said. “I felt that it was the best way in which I could serve them. New Orleans corps members will help to bring normalcy back into the lives of the displaced children of New Orleans.”

Teachers in the Houston branch of the Recovery Corps are assisting with the relief efforts in the Astrodome as they wait to be assigned new schools.

Megan Hagerty, one of Notre Dame’s Teach for America campus campaign managers, applauded the decision of New Orleans corps members to continue serving their newfound community in this time of fear and loss.

“I feel like it’s a big decision to do something like TFA especially because the individuals who do it are people who have lots of other options,” she said. “So first doing it and then turning that around and maintaining that commitment, and having that sense of compassion, it’s amazing that they would stick with it after such extenuating circumstances.”

While this perseverance is indicative of the teacher’s strength and values, it may also be traced back to the spirit of Notre Dame, Hagerty said.

“You hear that Notre Dame has this huge commitment and focus on service, and even though this is often shown in a day-to-day way among students, [TFA] is a real-life application,” she said. “When you see people stepping up in these exceptional circumstances, it shows even more commitment.”

The sense of community on Notre Dame’s campus and the availability of service opportunities in the surrounding areas did contribute to Hentges’ passion for the Teach for America program, she said.

“Notre Dame’s response to the Sept. 11terrorist attacks during my freshman year helped me to recognize the importance of community and hope during a tragedy,” Hentges said.

To overcome this tragedy, the displaced students of New Orleans must continue to live with the same hope that they displayed before the hurricane, Hentges said.