November 19, 2008

Trading Places

After Katrina, Tufts faculty and students went to New Orleans to see how the storm affected early childhood education. Recently child-care providers there came to Tufts

By Marjorie Howard

The questions swirled around the classroom: “How long did it take to rebuild your school? Why didn’t you just put a mattress in the boat and sleep there? Why didn’t you move into your school when you had no house?”

Child-care providers from New Orleans, from left, Gilda Duplessis, Deborah Irabor and Pearlie Harris answer questions at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School during their recent visit. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The children at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts were quizzing day-care providers from New Orleans who had lost nearly everything in Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not only were their homes damaged or destroyed, their day-care centers were ruined.

Gilda Duplessis, who ran two day-care centers that were severely damaged in the floods, told the kindergartners that she and her husband took refuge in their attic during the storm and could see their furniture floating in the water. Now they are living in one of the day-care centers, Gilda’s Preschool, which was rebuilt thanks to grants from the United Way of New Orleans and help from Tufts students and other groups.

Another provider, Pearlie Harris, told how her Royal Castle Child Development Center was completely destroyed in the floods that followed the hurricane. She left the city before the storm, ending up in Jackson, Miss., eventually returning to New Orleans to rebuild the center.

“When it rains, a lot of times the kids get scared,” said Deborah Irabor, who evacuated to Houston just before the hurricane arrived. “Some kids are really doing well, though, so it’s a mix. But some went through the hurricane, and it was very frightening.”

The women were at Tufts in late October, paying a return visit to faculty and students who went to New Orleans in 2007 to learn how Hurricane Katrina affected childhood education in the city. The visitors came thanks to a United Way program, Success by 6, which is trying to improve child-care quality in New Orleans.

The Eliot-Pearson child development department and the department of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts hosted panel discussions about special needs education and parent involvement in schools and arranged meetings with officials from a Boston early child-care agency. The visitors also toured the Ruggles Street Child Care Center in Boston and observed at the Tufts schools for young children.

The Tufts visit, Harris said, gave her ideas she hopes to use in her child-care center, and added that it was helpful to be able to talk about children with her Tufts counterparts. “I like getting together with people in the same profession,” she noted.

“I liked the idea of using natural materials and of using visuals—there are photographs everywhere,” added Duplessis. “If you are showing children how to wash their hands, you can have the text on the wall, but you can also have photographs showing children how to do it.”

On the Tufts side, Debbie Leekeenan, director of the Eliot-Pearson Children's School, said the visit excited and rejuvenated the faculty and students who have been involved with their New Orleans partners. “It was wonderful to see the circle come around and have them come here after we went there,” she said.

Leekeenan noted the children's school and the day-care providers have similar issues, such as dealing with behavior problems, encouraging parents to participate and determining what makes a good curriculum. “There was a feeling of reciprocity; we’re learning from each other. Everyone wants to continue the relationship.”

Joycelyn Jenkins, impact manager of the United Way’s Success by 6 program in New Orleans, came with the day-care providers from Louisiana and found the visit to Tufts very helpful. “The child-care providers are looking for new and innovative ways to reach the children, and they saw a number of teaching practices they were interested in,” she says.

One example, she says, was how the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School has children talk about good behavior and then post agreements on a wall about how to treat each other and the teachers. The visitors watched as a teacher dealt with two young boys who weren't getting along. After speaking softly to them about the incident, the teacher reminded them they had agreed to treat each other with respect and had them shake hands.

The child-care providers and the Tufts faculty, staff and students plan to continue exchanging ideas and keep the partnership alive. “Because you gave us a helping hand,” says Harris, “it was good to have a chance to come here and see what you do.” 

Marjorie Howard can be reached at

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