Sharing their corner of the world with students from Mississippi are Nikolaevsk School second-graders Nikit Fefelov, Brian Whaley and Elena Gordeev, and teacher Robanne Stading.
Photo courtesy Denise Ogle
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Southeast United States. Among those impacted by its staggering power were youngsters now in Katie Wiltz’s second-grade classroom at Gulfview/Charles B. Murphy School in Kiln, Miss.
Now, Wiltz is helping the youngsters refocus their lives by learning more about students elsewhere in the United States.
One of those locations is Nikolaevsk.
“They know stuff I didn’t know about in second grade,” Wiltz said of the changes forced upon her students as a result of what they experienced during and in the aftermath of Katrina.
Destroyed by the hurricane, the Charles B. Murphy and Gulfview schools joined forces in October 2005, relocating their combined 480 kindergarten through fifth-grade students into FEMA trailers, with two classrooms per trailer.
“I’m trying to get these kids back to normal and wanted to do something to really get them involved and get their minds off the hurricane,” Wiltz said of choosing the Flat Stanley Project to help direct the students’ attention.
Based on information available on the Flat Stanley Web site, flatstanley.enoreo.on.ca/, Wiltz and the second-graders made 50 of the Flat Stanley cutouts.
After Wiltz randomly picked 50 schools in 50 states, with Nikolaevsk chosen as the Alaska school, the Flat Stanley figures were colored and mailed off with questions that asked for the name of the school; whether it was in a city, suburb or rural area; how many kids attended the school; how long the school day and school year lasted; what the climate was; and what was the students’ favorite lunch.
Schools in Alaska and Hawaii were especially appealing to the youngsters because of the two states’ distance from the rest of the United States. The students were fascinated by the response from Nikolaevsk.
“We read the letter and it said there were 62 kids in the school. Then we kept reading and it said the school was kindergarten through 12th grade and I thought, my lord, that’s a little bitty school,” Wiltz said. “Before the hurricane, we only had 125 kids and we thought we were small.”
Intrigued, Wiltz called Nikolaevsk and struck up conversations with Robanne Stading, Nikolaevsk’s special education teacher, and Denise Ogle, the school secretary.
“One of their questions was why there were only three second-graders in our school and the answer from our students was because one moved away or we would have had four,” Ogle said, laughing.
Wiltz’s students have continued to stay in contact with Nikolaevsk.
“I don’t really know how it happened, but one day I said, ‘Would you mind if my kids called every day and asked what the temperature was?’ And (Ogle) said, ‘Not at all.’ So, that’s what my kids do. They call every day, ask the temperature and then get on the Internet and find out what our temperature is, and we figure out how much warmer we are,” Wiltz said.
The student selected to be Wiltz’s helper for the day is the one to make the call and report back to the rest of the class.
“At first they didn’t know what to say, but now I notice they’re talking to (Ogle) and telling her stuff,” Wiltz said. “I’ll ask them what the report is from Alaska and they stand in front of the class and give a report on what the temperature is.”
Nikolaevsk’s daily temperatures are tracked on a huge thermometer in front of the classroom.
“The other day we called and it was 20 below. At first the students were going to 20 above and I said, ‘No, no, no; you have to go all the way down here, below zero,’” Wiltz said.
A photo exchange also has helped bring the two schools closer together.
“I shared a picture of us plugging our car in to keep it warm and sent them a photo of a big snowman we built,” Ogle said. “(Wiltz) sent me a picture of every person in the class so I can look at it and know who I’m talking to each day.”
One of the schools not responding to the questions sent by Wiltz’s students is the school in Hawaii. Wiltz suspects that it, like Gulfview and Charles B. Murphy schools, was impacted by a force of nature.
“That’s the city where they had the earthquake,” she said, referring to the 6.5 jolt that struck the Kona coast on Oct. 15, 2006.
Progress happening in Wiltz’s area illustrates resilience in the wake of a disaster.
“A letter went home today (Jan. 22) to kids and parents about having nominations to rename the school. We’re building a brand new school in the next couple of years,” Wiltz said, adding that the connection with Nikolaevsk also has been helpful.
“If it hadn’t been for the hurricane, we probably wouldn’t have done this, but I really wanted to do something to get their minds off of (Katrina).”
Even from Nikolaevsk, the positive impact is evident.
“It’s pretty exciting that we’ve made a connection with the school. Especially after (2005), when seven or eight kids lost their homes,” Stading said of the Mississippi youngsters.
“Now, they’re all encouraged this year.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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