US teacher helps build school in Dominican Republic

The (Allentown) Morning Call

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) – Erich May was a newspaper reporter in rural Clearfield County, a cabinet maker in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and a high school English teacher in affluent Centre County before trying his hand at urban education in Allentown.

“Urban education is not for the faint of heart,” said May, supervisor of instruction at Trexler Middle School. “Challenges spring from poverty.”

Since taking the job in Allentown last year, May, like a lot of his fellow educators, has tried connecting with the district’s student population, about 88 percent of whom are poor and 66 percent of whom are Hispanic. He’s been practicing Spanish and learning the customs of their native culture.

“I hear Spanish in the hallways,” he said.

Now, the 38-year-old will take his quest for understanding to another level when he travels to the Dominican Republic to help build a school in a place that happens to be the hometown of Trexler sixth-grader Job Rodriguez, 10.

“It is a very nice place,” Job said. “It is a beautiful place.”

Constanza is a farming community nestled in one of the fertile valleys of the rugged highlands and mountains of the Caribbean nation on the island of Hispaniola.

“I’m told the only time I am going to see the beach is from the plane,” May said.

May will help with concrete work and building classrooms in the charitable construction project that began last year and is known as Lifetouch Memory Mission.

The mission is being run by the National Association of Secondary Principals, the American Association of School Administrators, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals in partnership with the school yearbook company, Lifetouch. May’s weeklong trip will run through Dec. 11.

May said when he saw an ad looking for volunteers for the trip, he applied online, thinking it would be a good learning experience for himself and Trexler students. Months passed and he forgot about the application.

Then a letter arrived in the mail. He’d been selected.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what’s Holly going to say?’” May said.

Holly, his wife and mother of 5-year-old Henry and 3-year-old Owen, said go.

“I was just really excited for him,” she said. “I thought it was a good opportunity.”

So did his bosses, who did not mind when he asked for vacation time.

May’s quest for further understanding and learning touched Trexler students and staff.

Students raised money to help defray the $2,800 cost, which includes travel, lodging and food.

Teachers incorporated letter-writing and interviewing lessons into their curriculum so students can communicate with May over the Internet while he is away. May will carry Trexler students’ letters with him in the hopes of setting up a pen-pal program with students on the island.

“We feel a kinship to the Latinos so we are excited Erich is going to the Dominican Republic,” said reading specialist Nitsa Levidis. “It is an educational endeavor, and it is a charitable purpose.”

District technology staff have set up an Internet connection in the classroom of seventh-grade English teacher Mike Dopera so students will be able to video conference with May.

“It’s going to be great if we pull it off,” May said.

By interviewing May over the Internet, Dopera said, his students will be able to see how classroom lessons on informational writing work in the real world.

“Interviewing students, their peers, is one thing,” Dopera said. “Interviewing an adult is definitely more authentic.”

May won’t just be talking about the construction project. He’ll be talking about the frutas y verduras – fruits and vegetables that Job’s aunts told him grow in Constanza.

May met with them at their Allentown home to find out about the land. To make May feel at home, Job’s aunts gave him their brother’s telephone number and invited him to call. Job said his father plans to drive from Santiago to Constanza to help with the project and meet May.

Even if the Internet hookup doesn’t work right. Even if the weather is bad. Even if the construction work is harder than he imaged, it doesn’t matter to May. He’s already succeeded in his mission of understanding when he walks Trexler’s hallways or pops into classrooms to evaluate lessons.

He’s greeted with the refrain: “Mr. May, I’m from the Dominican Republic.”

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