Sag Harbor to New Orleans: Students Connect Through Books

Pierson Middle School student council officers Ryan Brown, Lara Ferraris, Katie Annicelli and Yanni Bitis help load boxes of books bound for New Orleans.
Pierson Middle School student council officers Ryan Brown, Lara Ferraris, Katie Annicelli and Yanni Bitis help load boxes of books bound for New Orleans.

By Annette Hinkle

A decade ago, Hurricane Katrina roared through New Orleans, leaving a massive trail of destruction in its wake, most of it caused when levees around the area failed.

While it may feel like yesterday to most of us, in New Orleans, today’s middle school students have no memories of life before Katrina — and many of the endless hurdles she left behind remain to be conquered.

A good example of that is Theodore Roosevelt Middle School.

Located in Kenner, Louisiana, just north of downtown New Orleans, the school was destroyed when Lake Pontchatrain breached its banks and flooded the neighborhood.

It took nine years to rebuild and the brand new school stands as a testament to the determination to bring New Orleans back from the brink.

But what isn’t evident from the outside of Theodore Roosevelt Middle School is the lack of resources on the inside.

That shortage was made clear to Sag Harbor School Superintendent Katy Graves last year when her former student Katy Clayton, now an eighth grade English teacher at Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, informed her that the school lacked even the most basic supplies — including books for the students.

And books is where Pierson eighth grade English teacher Christine Farrell felt sure she and her students could help.

“I’ve always had kids read independently, in addition to the curriculum, and over the years I’ve come to realize that after kids read books, they get lost on a shelf and they never read them again,” said Ms. Farrell. “I thought it would be good for heightened awareness to recycle and reuse.”

She also felt it would be a great opportunity for the Sag Harbor students to connect with their peers in New Orleans. So throughout much of the 2014-15 school year, Ms. Farrell and her eighth graders spearheaded a book drive to collect donations of age-appropriate books for the students of Theodore Roosevelt.

At first, Ms. Farrell worried that because Katrina was a decade ago, people would be less likely to help out given the pressing needs of those who have experienced more recent tragedies. But she did not have to worry.

“When we up brought the idea of helping Katrina victims, everyone donated with open arms,” said Ms. Farrell. “I was also collecting books from Hampton Bays Public Library. Everyone wanted to help out. The entire teachers’ lounge was books. People were also donating arts and crafts.”

Along the way, thanks to modern technology, Ms. Farrell’s class got to know a bit more about the students they were helping.

“We were able to Skype the class last winter and our Pierson students got to unofficially meet them and learn who they are as a school and a community,” explained Ms. Farrell. “There is such a stark difference between the kids in the south and kids in Sag Harbor and there were misconceptions on both sides.”

For the Pierson students, hearing southern accents and learning a bit of slang was an eye opener. They were also curious to know why the students at Theodore Roosevelt wore uniforms, even though it is a public school. Conversely, the New Orleans students were very interested in learning about the Kardashians, wanted to know if the Pierson kids knew famous people personally and asked if everyone in Sag Harbor was rich.

“It was breaking stereotypes on both sides,” said Ms. Farrell.

By June, as the school year was winding down, the books were piling up and they continued to come in over the summer. The eighth graders who started the connection with the school are now ninth graders, and this year’s Pierson eighth graders have been charged with picking up where their predecessors left off.

To that end, the current middle school student counsel, president Yanni Bitis, vice president Ryan Brown, treasurer Lara Ferraris and secretary Katie Annicelli, started the school year off right by figuring out how to get the donated books to the students, thanks to former school board member David Diskin who took charge of shipping the seven pallets down to New Orleans.

The books may be out of the teachers’ lounge and on their way to their new home, but that doesn’t mean the relationship with Theodore Roosevelt Middle School is over.

In fact, you could say it’s just beginning.

“The reason it was carried to this year is I wanted to keep it open ended,” said Ms. Farrell. “We’ll see how everything unfolds and if we can continue a partnership—it might be by collecting school supplies or becoming pen pals.”

For Pierson Middle School assistant principal Brittany Miaritis, the value of this connection works both ways, especially as it relates to the International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Programme, for which Pierson Middle School is now a candidate.

“Our goal is for more kids to access the IB diploma program, and we want our children to be well rounded when they get to high school,” said Ms. Miaritis, “so I’m all about our middle school learning about different cultures.”

“Just one Skype session broke down barriers and it plays into the global context of the IB program,” she added. “When our students Skyped, they learned the accent was different and the jargon was different, but they found the common ground of taking selfies, and Instagramming.”

“If we can connect with more schools, all the better,” she added.

While an eighth grade class trip to New Orleans may be a bit of a stretch for this year, at least one of the Pierson students is already thinking about the next step in building the relationship.

“I think it would be good if we could get in touch with them when the books get there and see how they enjoy them,” said Yanni Bitis.