Birthday Books and Butterflies

Michele Moore’s PreK class at ENCORE Academy in New Orleans was raising their own batch of butterflies when closed schools in March. The caterpillars had just entered the chrysalis stage. Michele took them home and carried on from there.

Taking a look at the butterflies in person, thanks to a school administrator who is also mom to one of the students.

“I took videos and pictures and I send them to the kids every day,” she said. “When they hatched, I called every single one of them to show them the butterflies. They were so happy.”

A bit of comfort, routine, and a friendly face goes a long way for her students right now.

“I have one little guy who told his mom he just feels so lost,” she said. “I told him he’s welcome to FaceTime me any time he wants.”

For that reason, Michele and her fellow teachers and paraprofessionals have each taken responsibility for calling the same group of families every day to check in on them. ENCORE Academy serves a population that is 90 percent low-income and includes a large population of English language and special education learners. On top of things, Michele’s school has an extended day, from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., so kids are used to spending a good amount of time with their teachers—and so are parents.

“A phone call with family could last from five minutes to an hour; on certain days, we might have a lesson,” she said. “The biggest thing is talking to families that are sitting there worried and in tears about how they’re going to provide a roof and food for the next few months. Every single day you hear about a new need—one family that’s homeless now, other kids that have food issues and live too far to come pick up food at the schools—the list has gone up so much compared to what we’re usually dealing with.”

ENCORE Academy had one day to prepare for school closings. They put together everything they could and delivered what they couldn’t pass out. They checked with each family to see what they had access to, if they needed a computer, if they had a data plan for their phone, if they had Internet, and they made a list. Then they started working to check things off. They worked with local artists to put together art packets, they started plans to get Chromebooks to all the families and loaded books into the portable plastic closet outside the school that acts as their own free lending library.

Since then, Michele ordered 468 books from First Book using COVID-19 grant money from Pizza Hut, which means every single kid from PreK through second grade will get a book to take home, and there will be books leftover for the lending library and individual classroom libraries. She used books she had previously ordered from First Book with a grant from World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to create a “birthday book box”—kids got to pick their very own book on their birthdays—which came in handy recently when one her student’s birthdays fell on a food distribution day.

PreK teacher Michele Moore and the birthday boy.

“I made him a special birthday poster, made his birthday crown, wrote a note in a birthday book just for him, and got all of our volunteers to sing happy birthday to him when he and his family came by the school,” she said. “His mom said he went home and put the poster up on his fridge and was beyond excited the entire day.”

All her kids are still so excited to show her something new that they’ve learned when she calls, or when she leaves food distributions on their front porches.

“An entire family waved to us through the windows when we stopped by. That’s the heartening thing, is knowing that not only are the kids are doing well, but that all of them are doing well—then we can think about what to do to keep them in that space. A lot of people need a lot of things and there’s room for support, but no one’s giving up. We’re going to keep working and keep working until we solve this.”