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Interview: Helping Displaced Students

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Melinda Mangham teaches gifted English and is the college adviser at Lafayette High School in Lafayette, Louisiana, approximately 130 miles west of New Orleans. As part of a district-wide relief effort, Lafayette High has accommodated some 300 students and several teachers displaced from their schools and homes by Hurricane Katrina. In an e-mail interview, we asked Mangham, who is also president of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, about how her school is helping the evacuees.

Q: What role have you had in helping the displaced students at your school?

A: I have worked with student groups as they organized relief efforts to help the new students. I am incredibly proud of our students. They formed an ambassador's club, which matches our students to new students to assist getting them to class (we have a very large campus and it can be daunting), to give them someone to eat lunch with, and to take them football games. We’re just trying to make their world as normal as possible. But I believe it will be a long time before we have “normal” as we once knew it, for the evacuees and for us. This entire situation is devastatingly surreal.

Of course, I also have evacuees as students in my classes. I have provided school supplies for them, and they are so appreciative—you would think I had given them a new car. I have worked with the presidents of organizations such as the National Honor Society and National Merit Program to make sure the evacuees aren’t left out. Actually, I am just trying to make the young people as comfortable as possible. It’s as though they are in exile: They have lost their homes and their schools.

Q: What challenges have been involved in integrating the displaced students into your school? What have you found these students need most from educators?

A: As one of the evacuees told me, “Everyone here has just welcomed me with open arms, doing all they can to help me. But this is really a bummer. I never thought my senior year in high school would be away from all I have known.” I think that what they need most is to know that there is someone on the school campus whom they can trust, who truly cares, and who recognizes the horror they are going through each day.

Q: Do you have a sense of how displaced students have been emotionally affected by the hurricane? How are they coping?

A: Sometimes I look at their faces, and their eyes have just glazed over. Then they pull themselves back to class. My heart aches for them. They have rough moments, and then a smile crosses a face and you see hope. While we are not home for them, we do provide something that is familiar. We provide a place where they have the opportunity to learn, and they have a thirst for knowledge.

Q: What is the school doing to accommodate the new teachers? What challenges do they and Louisiana’s teaching profession as a whole face now?

A: We have worked diligently to provide supplies to our new teachers. We have met with them and offered resources and whatever help we could. Many of them are being asked to come back to their districts to help clean the schools, so they have to make some tough decisions.

Unfortunately, I believe the state will lose some teachers. They will take jobs in other states and we may not get them back. Many of the displaced teachers are losing benefits from former districts, and their pay is uncertain. The state has many questions to address. Will the districts that have taken the evacuees be given financial help from the state or the federal government? Teachers are also expressing concerns about accountability on the state level and under No Child Left Behind. The issues are mind boggling!

Q: Have you done other relief work in connection with your teaching position?

A: Yes. Among other things, I’ve taken books to the large shelters for the young people to have something to read. The kids were so excited to have anything they could call their own. They took the books to their cots and immediately began to read. I have also volunteered to help with after-school tutoring once things settle down. I helped with registering evacuees in our district, and I worked with displaced teachers. I am also working with some different groups, some on a national level, to get textbooks. We really need to get books. Lack of textbooks is one of our biggest problems.

Q: How have you personally been affected by the hurricane?

A: My family in New Orleans and the Bay St. Louis area of Mississippi lost everything. But they do have their lives, for which we are so very grateful. I have four nieces who have lost their homes. Two of the homes are just not there any more; the other two are under 15 feet of water. My sister-in-law's home is gone. Three of my great-nieces and -nephews have lost their schools. The others’ schools are still standing, but we do not know the extent of the damage or whether they will open this year. All of my family members’ businesses are closed.

Katrina really packed a punch. I believe people have been in shock and running on nerves. I am so afraid that within a month or so, depression will be our enemy. I often feel that my emotions are overwhelmed. Just think what those who were in the direct path of the storm must feel.

Update: On Thursday, September 22, after this interview was conducted, Mangham e-mailed us an update on the situation at Lafayette High as the area prepared for Hurricane Rita, which was scheduled make landfall by late evening September 23 or early morning September 24:

“We will not have school tomorrow [Friday, September 23]. We are all holding our breath hoping for the best. I have been a teacher for [many] years; this year certainly has been one for the books. Today, several of the teachers were expressing concerns about the evacuees. This situation is a difficult one for seasoned adults to wrap their minds around, and yet these young people have such a special spirit about them. I worried about them as well as our students when we were notified that school was canceled tomorrow. How vulnerable they are! I could see ‘how could this be happening again’ cross their faces. What a shock Katrina has been to their lives!”

—Anthony Rebora

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