By Tessa Raebeck
When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it looked like the flooded Theodore Roosevelt Middle School in Kenner, Louisiana, would close its doors forever. Nine years later, the school has a brand new building, but its desks, bookshelves and supply cabinets remain empty.
Sag Harbor students are determined to help fill those shelves. Eighth graders in Christine Farrell’s English classes at Pierson Middle School are collecting books to send down to Kenner, a small city in the New Orleans suburbs.
“They are very happy to pay it forward,” Ms. Farrell said of her students, who have plastered posters around Pierson’s halls asking classmates for donations.
Superintendent Katy Graves connected the middle schools after hearing from a former student of hers, Katy Clayton. Ms. Clayton began teaching at Roosevelt Middle School this year, with six classes, including eighth grade English.
“She started the year with no paper for the copy machine, no books,” Ms. Graves explained. “Literally, the school was gutted. They built the school where the flood had come in, but they had no resources at all.”
Ms. Graves quickly got on the phone with John Olson, the principal at Roosevelt Middle School. Mr. Olson had worked in some of the highest performing schools in the south, but, rather than pursuing a lucrative interim job, after retirement he decided to return to work in his hometown. His hometown needed his experience: Before its doors opened for classes this fall, the middle school was already in the red, with no money for such basic supplies as pens and paper.
“They have a brand new building and it’s all pretty, but they have literally next to nothing for the classroom, they don’t have even white Xerox paper,” explained Ms. Farrell.
“The kids,” she said of her eighth grade students in Sag Harbor, “ have an abundance of books and typically for eighth grade, I ask them to read independent books on their own and usually they read it once and then nothing happens—it gets lost under their beds.”
The eighth grade ran a “very successful” book drive for the Little Flower School in Shoreham several years ago, so Ms. Farrell said she knows “Pierson will definitely come through with this.”
Although the focus is on the eighth grade at Roosevelt Middle School, Sag Harbor students have been collecting non-fiction, fiction and picture books for all students in the school, which has students in grades six through eight. “They need really everything,” said Ms. Farrell.
The drive has only been running about three weeks, but Pierson students have seen ample donations from parents and community members since word got out.
“We have all this stuff collecting in our house,” Ms. Farrell said, “but you don’t want to throw it out, it’s a book.” Families who may have overdone it on the school supplies shopping this fall can bring any extra items to the school. “Whatever they’re not using can be donated,” she said. They are still working out the logistics of how to transport boxes of heavy books to Louisiana.
Although Pierson students are starting with the book drive, they hope to continue working to support the southern school in various ways throughout the year.
“We want these kids to develop; we’re really working hard on character and empathy and thoughtfulness and really reaching outside yourself,” said Ms. Graves, adding, “I’m so proud of them.”
Ms. Farrell hopes to connect her eighth graders with their southern counterparts more directly by establishing literary pen pals; students would write letters to each other based on the books they’re reading in class.
When Ms. Carlson, the teacher at Roosevelt Middle School, accepted Pierson’s offer to help, Ms. Graves gave her one condition: The Yale graduate will be coming to Sag Harbor to speak with students about getting into a top school from a small town later in the year—and she’ll likely be returning south with plenty of boxes.
If you’d like to donate books or school supplies to the Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, please drop items off at the main office at Pierson Middle/High School, with an attention to detail for Christine Farrell.