An affirmative adventure

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 13, 2002


RESERVE – A typical day for a parish school system superintendent is replete with presentations. Generally, from early morning to late afternoon, the captain of the academic ship is awash in employee and parental grievances, budgetary and tax-base concerns and the ever-present queries from television and print reporters.

It is only now and then leaders such as Michael Coburn, St. John the Baptist Parish’s superintendent of schools, experience the joy of a multi-medium meeting with elementary-age children bent on raising a smile as well as consciousness at the top of the education food chain.

Just such a occurrence happened the other day inside a paneled conference room of the school system headquarters in Reserve. Six Glade School students, accompanied by teachers Carey King and Sammy Politziner, swept Coburn off his feet and figuratively led him through a positive month-long experiential summer camp aptly named “Project YES: Youth Exploring Society.”

In less than the time it would take to call roll and read the previous minutes at a school board committee meeting, the bright-eyed children talked about their extensive travels in and around the wilds of south Louisiana and how the hands-on learning experiment changed their lives and the lives of those touched along the way. Through a series of innovative skits, the students, LaPlace residents Herchelle Decay, LaBaron Sylvester, Shanikwa Black, Ruben Webb, Darichelle Sampson and Damien Howard, explained and acted out their collective feelings about prejudices and economic inequalities found in society and the way these negative forces effect citizens of different cultures and varying religions.

Songs were sung and not-so-subtle points were made as the kids recounted the sights, sounds and smells of their visit to the Chitimacha Indian Reservation in Charenton, where the dwindling population of Native Americans depends on employment at the tribe’s casino and the unpredictable revenue generated from passing tourists’ purchases of hand-woven baskets. The third grade Glade Gators talked about assisting members of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in the quest for cleaner air around the African-American community of Diamond.

King and Politziner rented a minivan from Enterprise and drove the children each day hundreds of miles, for a total of more than 2,300 miles, in order that the underprivileged youth could have more to do in the summer than simply watching television or playing in the yard. The young educators, who left the River Parishes today for Boston, Mass. and the hallowed halls of Harvard University to pursue master’s degrees in education, believe in the endearing values of first-hand knowledge and the lifelong effect a dedicated teacher can have upon an open-minded child.

The superintendent beamed as he watched his charge, King taught in the St. John the Baptist Parish School System for three years, lead her students through musical sojourns to New Orleans East and its parochial Southeast Asian community. Laughter exploded from the children and as talked about interacting with the mostly Vietnamese immigrants and how they deftly learned to eat, even the pieces of fish and chicken in the hot and sour soup, with chop sticks.

A serious note was sounded near the end of the skits as the students talked about their visit to a mosque in New Orleans and how the people they encountered treated them with respect while at the same time many of the Islamic followers experienced post-Sept. 11 prejudices from a small but significant segment in the Crescent City. Asked to remove their shoes prior to entering the house of worship, the children were soon put at ease by the generosity of the Middle Eastern people, who filled the kids’ stomachs with pita bread, chicken kabobs and honey and their minds with tales of the Muslim faith.

Jazz music and street performers were a highlight of the students’ stop in the French Quarter and frogs, turtles and alligators filled the natural education bill on the Atchafalaya Swamp tour.

At the end of the presentation the children recited a list of problems, as well as solutions to those problems, associated with bigotry encountered by numerous Americans in the land of opportunity. They asked Coburn to join them in a pro-active campaign to improve their school, specifically the library and its policy of not allowing students to check out books for extended perusal, and the forward-thinking superintendent eagerly jumped on board with the concept and the thought of hundreds of kids, and their parents, following in the volunteering footsteps of these half-dozen educational entrepreneurs.

“This has been fantastic, simply fantastic,” Coburn told the excited children. “I am so proud of you and I will check into the library situation today, not tomorrow, but today.

“The logo for our school system is ‘Making a Difference,’ and you guys are excellent examples of doing just that.”

As a reward for all of their hard work, which in addition to the day trips included painting a mural at Glade School, reading to pre-kindergarten students, visiting elderly residents of a local nursing home, and fixing up the playground at their school, King and Politziner brought the kids to a New Orleans Zephyrs minor league baseball game and allowed them the opportunity to witness the diamond contest from the warm waters of the swimming pool situated over the modern ballpark’s right-field fence.

When asked what they learned from their treks, the kids smiled and as a group said people may be different on the outside but they are basically the same on the inside. It was a message not lost upon the man charged with lifting a diverse educational system firmly into the academic high ground.

“This (the students’ presentation and the leadership of their teachers) is what it is all about,” Coburn said. “This is why people get into the field of education.

“It is children like this who will go out and make a positive difference in the world and what we saw here today is only the beginning.”