College of Education works to help displaced Katrina students


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In Renaissance Village, one group is known as “the parachute people.” The ones who bring colorful learning, physical energy, and caring consistency to life among the rows of white trailers the children of Katrina call home.

Through the Delta Express Program, service-learning students from a variety of majors are working through the LSU College of Education to address the physical and educational needs of children who live in the community of 600 white trailers just north of Baton Rouge.

“The goal of the program is not just to prepare teachers,” said Dean M. Jayne Fleener. “I think in many respects we are creating better citizens.”

In “After-School Camp,” children of families displaced by Katrina receive daily formal and informal tutoring through their LSU student mentors. When their homework is complete, kinesiology students engage the children in an hour of organized physical activity, which at times might include a colorful parachute.

“They can’t pronounce kinesiology, so they call us ‘the parachute people’ or ‘the ball people,’” said Russell Carson, assistant professor of kinesiology, whose students have worked there since early 2006.

Mary LeBlanc, director of the Renaissance Village Learning Center, said most families are headed by single mothers who have struggled since Katrina to make a stable home for their children. When the trailer park community opened after the storm, the children were developmentally delayed on so many levels, LeBlanc said.

“Many hadn’t been in school for a year. We had to have as many hands on deck as we could get,” she said.

Today, due to efforts by Delta Express, village staff, and school partners, more than 90 percent of Renaissance Village children regularly attend school. Of the students who participate in “After-School Camp,” 12 kindergartners received graduation certificates, and every fourth and eighth-grader who completed the LEAP (Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) test passed in 2007.

“At the beginning of the school year I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” LeBlanc said. “But with the (College of Education) tutors coming in regularly, doing their ‘magic’ – what they were taught in the classroom to help children – it just completely turned around. We had a warm nurturing environment, and the kids looked forward to coming. It just all came together.”

The Delta Express: Meeting Educational Needs

The involvement of the College of Education began just days after the storm.

“We started in the (Baton Rouge) River Center, taking our students and kinesiology faculty with balls, hula hoops, and jump ropes to engage the children there in physical activities,” Fleener said. “We started out in crisis mode. When you look at service-learning in terms of community service, teaching, and research, our first efforts were primarily service – trying to get out and pick up what we could.”

When evacuees moved to the Renaissance Village trailer community, so did the College of Education’s service efforts. The result was Delta Express – a university-community collaborative devoted to providing educational support for children and families of crisis.

Delta Express began as a partnership between the College of Education and the UC (University-Community) Links network of the University of California, Berkeley. UC Links provides access to quality educational resources for children from low-income communities. Through Delta Express, community, school, and university partners create a safe, welcoming, and engaging environment for interactive learning among older and younger peers.

Not Just for Education Majors

Service-learning courses that are part of Delta Express are open to students with majors outside the College of Education. The course, “Working with Children of Crisis,” was created to meet the needs of Renaissance Village children.

“The service involves tutoring and mentoring,” Fleener said. “The educational goal of the class is to study children of crisis.”

LSU students also tutor and mentor through a course called “Education, Schooling, and Society.” Because of the service-learning component, students in this course learn a lot more about schools and the challenges that schools face than in a course that just reads about schools and society, Fleener said.

For the past two semesters, Carson’s service-learning kinesiology students (physical education majors and others) have introduced physical activity and social development through a program he now calls “Le Pas” or Lifetime Exercise and Physical Activity Service-learning program. “Le pas” means “the step” in French.

“I’d like to think the French meaning of ‘le pas’ has materialized at Renaissance Village,” Carson said. “We have provided the children with ‘the step” they deserve.”

His students design and conduct physical activities that emphasize fitness as an important key to personal and social development.

“Our goal is to get the children excited to move, to have fun moving, and to cooperate with one another,” Carson said. “We emphasize fun, all-inclusive activities, and the clear connection between lifetime motor development and social development.”

The children of Renaissance Village are not the only ones who are learning. Carson’s students have, too.

“I believe for learning to occur, students must actively experience and apply what they are being taught in the classroom. What a better place to do this than with a population that needs it most,” he said. “This service-learning element has enabled class discussions – mostly student led – to emerge on the topics of racial understanding, cultural competency, and civic awareness and purpose.”

Overcoming stereotypes of class, race, and poverty; reaching out and caring about others; and developing technical skills and personal character are outcomes of the experiences these LSU students have had that are often lacking in traditional field placements, Fleener said.

“Russ has responded to the need of crisis and embraced a ‘teachable moment’ to creatively offer service to those displaced by Katrina,” she said.

Demonstrating Caring Consistency

One of the most important elements of the College of Education’s program is its consistency, especially in contrast with the upheaval the children have faced before and after Katrina.

“Many service groups at Renaissance Village have come and gone, but not us,” Carson said. “The children know we will be there every day. Our stable presence has allowed us to grow relationships with these kids.”

According to LeBlanc, the mentors took a “bare knuckles approach” at the beginning of the program, helping children with behavioral problems and learning disabilities get through the school year. For the first 10 months of the program, LSU students returned faithfully day after day to help with homework in less-than-ideal conditions created through a lack of supplies and inadequate facilities.

This caring consistency resulted in changes in both learning and behavior among the Renaissance Village children.

“We found in May (2007) that, by working on homework almost exclusively, we saw a change,” LeBlanc explained. “Between the mentoring and the tutoring, behavior problems started vastly improving.”

Now, when the children arrive at school, they have their homework and other projects completed, she said.

“They saw they were starting to get respect, which resulted in changes in their behavior. The transition has been remarkable, and our children are proud,” LeBlanc said.