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A School Counselor Takes To The Floodwaters To Rescue His Students And Their Families

Brandon McElveen (left) is a school counselor at the KIPP Explore Academy elementary school in Houston.

Brandon McElveen's Ford F150 pickup is lifted up about six inches. He says that's just the style in the South, but this week, "it's come in handy" for driving through up to four feet of water.

McElveen's a counselor at the KIPP Explore Academy elementary school in Houston. Within hours of the flooding this week, he began getting calls and messages asking for help. One was from a family with two girls on the middle school softball team he also coaches.

With his truck and a borrowed kayak, he estimates he's helped more than 20 people to safety.

When NPR reached him by telephone, he was making grocery runs for others stranded by the water, including a colleague, a second-grade teacher. "It's just really surreal," he says of the destruction of his city. "You don't want to sit in your house and watch TV while so many people around you have things that they need."

McElveen's rescue missions are just one way that educators around the region are trying to help.

In the Houston Independent School District, the first day of school for the more than 210,000 students was originally planned for Monday, Aug. 28, but has now been postponed at least to Tuesday, Sept. 5. The county's various superintendents have been in touch by phone daily to determine where they will be able to open, and whether some school buildings may still be in use as shelters at that time.

In the medium term, school leaders are trying to plan for families' needs, even as they and their staff are also facing the disaster themselves.

Sylvia Rosilez is a member of the support staff at Furr High School, and lives in Houston's Songwood neighborhood.

"This is completely devastating," she says. "My neighbor behind me, her complete first floor was under water." Still, her thoughts are with the students.

"It's a low-income part of Houston," she says. "I can't imagine if these children have places to stay, places to live, where they have gone." Furr students and staff have been in touch over Facebook, Twitter and texts.

The Houston Independent School District has its own charitable foundation that is now accepting donations for Harvey victims.

KIPP, a national charter network, operates 28 schools with 14,500 students in the flood-affected region. It is setting up a family emergency fund right now to get cash directly to those most directly affected, both teachers and students. They are working on setting up distribution centers when schools reopen, offering things like food, water and new school uniforms to those who need them.

And, school leaders are thinking about long-term needs as well.

KIPP in Houston has some unique experience here. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a dozen years ago, hundreds of students from KIPP schools in that city, as well as some brand-new Teach for America teachers, were evacuated to Houston. KIPP opened a school specifically for those students and with those teachers, and ran it for two years before the students either returned to New Orleans or were absorbed into Houston schools.

Deedrah Harp headed up counseling services for the post-Katrina school, which was known as New Orleans West or NOW College Prep. She is now chief innovation officer at KIPP Houston.

"What I learned from that experience, is, how do we make sure we're preparing for Day 1 through 30, for their mental health and their basic needs?" she says. "It's a lot of time we will have to invest. There's this sense of wanting to return to a place of normalcy. But things have changed, and how do we support that?"

At NOW College Prep, Harp recalls, some children needed brief interventions, six or 10 sessions of counseling. Others had more intense and critical needs, requiring referrals to counselors with partner institutions.

Students also drew pictures and wrote stories about their experiences. "We made sure we provided the opportunity for kids to be creative in the expression of their trauma," says Harp. "Some are able to talk about things and some are not."

And responses are different for children at different developmental points, she added: Some act angry or impulsive, some withdraw, some have anxiety and regression. All are within the normal range of responses to trauma, Harp says. And responses can show up many months after the fact.

Harp says they'll be thinking about all of this as Houston students head back to school. "If we know how to put those tools in place and give them a calm, safe, comfortable place, those tools will help them later on," says Harp. "It could be a year later."

Now, students across a vast area face the same task of rebuilding and recovery, measured in months and even years, not days.

McElveen, as a school counselor, will be there for his students' mental health needs. "I know they're going to need support emotionally," as well as practically, he says. "Everything we can think of, we're going to try to coordinate a way to do it."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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