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Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe Hosts Educators from Puerto Rico

On nearly the year anniversary of the date when Hurricane Maria plowed into Puerto Rico, five artist-educators from San Juan arrived in Chapel Hill-Carrboro to start a five day residency with their sister school, Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe. On September 24, the artists from Escuela Arturo Morales Carrion began their work with both students and staff, using music, dance and expressive arts to teach about the healing and enduring power of resilience, voice and social justice.

The collaboration between the two schools was born last November with a phone call to Escuela AMC’s Principal Camila Arroyo and a simple question from the staff at FPGB, “How can we help?” Reeling from the devastation and still living in the post-hurricane chaos and deprivation, Arroyo did not hesitate to embrace the opportunity for collaboration. Nearly 90% of the San Juan school’s students lost everything in Maria, and 80% live below the poverty line. The FPG Bilingüe community jumped into action and organized fundraisers. A few months later, a group of nine FPGB educators, including Principal Emily Bivins, visited Escuela AMC to meet students, staff and parents, and they delivered over $3,000 to replace some of the materials lost as a result of the hurricane.

Bivins said that their school works hard to help students, parents and staff recognize and embrace their connections between the school community and the larger world. “When we partnered with the school in San Juan after Hurricane Maria, we had no idea the kind of friendship and collaboration we would have.” As part of the team visiting from CHCCS, Harrawood said, “While there, we learned of the integrated arts work to support the students and staff after the trauma from the hurricane. We were so inspired that we invited the artists for a residency at FPG. Our request was for the team to provide a residency in art (music, dance, visual) around the three themes of voice, resilience and social justice.”

After school, on September 26, the FPG staff filled a classroom to overflowing to hear the stories of the artists. Each of the five artist-educators introduced themselves with their individual accounts from the aftermath of Maria. One noted that, “Even though the effect after the hurricane was different on all of us, suffering and pain were common denominators.”

The guests spoke about the difficulties of rising above their own losses and anguish. “Our students returned to school with much fear, and our job was to give much joy. We still had to come to work, because ‘the show must go on.’” Another added, “Happiness doesn’t live in electricity and SMART Boards.” When school first resumed, weeks after the hurricane hit the island, most students came to school without breakfast, or often dinner the night before, and without water to bathe. The teachers worked together as a team to provide “a temporary oasis,” even as they knew that most students were lucky if they had eaten the MRE’s (meals ready-to-eat) distributed by the military.

Some Puerto Rican students were withdrawn, some experienced frequent panic attacks, and others reflected their trauma through behaviors common to ADHD. The educators said that it was important to take breaks throughout the day, to use body movement, and to take time to express the intense feelings experienced by children and adults alike. “It’s like an eternal battle,” one teacher said. “Always asking yourself, ‘How will I continue moving forward?’ The students noticed, and they grew worried about us, their teachers.” And so the adults would step up their efforts again, to provide that safe space for all.

Bivins said, “In visiting the (residency) sessions throughout the week, my heart was so full in watching our students and staff share the challenges they face and to seek strength from one another. They were able to experience and receive the gifts from a group of people that we had given to. I think one of the most valuable lessons is that gifts and resources are not just money and things, but they are people and the spirit of what makes us all human.”

FPGB dancers in white Alex Linares, instructional technology facilitator, said, "It was such an awesome experience to see our students so engaged and pick up on all of the performances so quickly. Our staff had a very insightful PD with the artists as they shared their experiences through hurricane Maria recovery." 

Music teacher Ann Harrawood said, “The FPG Bilingüe community spent a wonderful week with the artists/educators from Puerto Rico. They learned about their experiences this past year- since Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc in their country. They taught our students and faculty about resilience, voice and social justice through music and dance. All FPGB students worked with our guests at some point during the week. We learned about the Bomba, a dance that is a mixture of the three different cultures of the island - African, Spanish and Taino. Our children drummed the rhythms of the music and danced the movements. The week's brilliant learning was shared at our 7th annual Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration for families and friends of our school community.”

Indeed, hundreds of families, staff and friends joined together for hours, on the evening of September 28, to share in the dancing, drumming and an abundance of food-- a joyful celebration.