Rice students devote break to Jackson school

A one-week visit to an elementary school could turn out to be a life-changing experience, some Rice University students are discovering.

Thirteen students from the Houston school visited Jackson Elementary School during the university’s five-day spring break, working in the classrooms with students and teachers and leading a student field trip to the LSU campus.

For Adrianna Morrell, one of the group’s leaders, her first visit to the Jackson school in 2011 sent her down a different career path.

“I was so affected the first time. I had never been in such an under-funded school in such a small community. After that very short week, I realized that I wanted to be a teacher; that all I wanted to do was be around students,” Morrell said.

Morrell, who grew up in a diverse Houston community but attended only Catholic schools before college, had planned to study veterinary medicine but she changed her major and course work.

“Every year I come back because of those students and because they affected me so much,” Morrell said.

“I hope that, even though it’s just a week, somehow I can affect them, too. I know all the fifth-graders, because I’ve been with the same kids all three years,” she added.

The “Alternative Spring Break” is a program of Rice’s Community Involvement Center, which coordinated 12 trips across the nation in the past week to look at various issues, including education, prison reform and environmental concerns, said Adara Robbins, a group leader on her second mission to Jackson.

“All of the participants make a contribution toward their own experience,” Robbins said, adding the students do fundraisers in the community and solicit donations from family and friends.

“Many of our friends and family in the Houston area have been very supportive,” Robbins said. The students have been staying in the Jackson Methodist Church’s social hall.

Principal Megan Phillips said the students and teachers look forward to the visits. The LSU field trip on Monday was a first for most of the school’s students. The visit was highlighted by a stop at Mike the Tiger’s home and talks with LSU athletes, including quarterback Zach Mettenberger.

Robbins came to Jackson last year as a sophomore.

“I was very invested in the school and its progress. I could tell that this school was trying so hard to overcome so many obstacles. I really admire that, and I wanted to be a part of that again,” she said.

Funding appears to be the East Feliciana Parish school’s major obstacle, Robbins said.

“They’re trying to make do with what little they have, and they’re doing a fantastic job of doing so much with so little funding,” Robbins said.

Phillips has told them she wishes the kindergarten and first-grade classes could be smaller, or have “assistant teachers” to get the students off to a good start in the elementary grades.

“I think that just goes back to funding,” Robbins said.

The visiting students planned to drive back to Houston on Saturday.

“I think the biggest thing about these trips that’s not specific to this one is, yes, they are just one week, but the main goal is to open the eyes of its participants so that they come away a changed citizen, that they are aware these social conditions exist. Then, when they go back to school, they don’t forget about that and they do something about them,” Morrell said.

“We do ‘group reflection’ every night to process what we saw and start talking about the root causes of what we saw every day,” Robbins said.

“I’ve already been hearing from some of the participants this year that they’re rethinking the choices they’re making, rethinking the way they see their time after Rice. To me, that’s fantastic to hear,” Robbins said.

Morrell said she hopes her colleagues also come away with an appreciation of the value of teachers and understand there is more to teaching than some people may think.