Trooping back to school Help of all hands gets pupils to class in wake of Andrew

September 15, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

MIAMI -- Sailors cleaned out the classrooms. Soldiers drove the big orange buses. Teachers and principals worked double shifts through the weekend. And somehow yesterday morning, the doors of Blue Lakes Elementary opened on time for the first day of school in Dade County.

But just when it seemed life was inching back to the normalcy of chalk dust and crayons three weeks after Hurricane Andrew, along came 5-year-old Crystal Guyton to set everybody straight with a voice as soft as a whisper.

"I was scared," she told her classmates. "Then I heard the hurricane say, 'Boom!' My granddaddy died. The windows blew out. My momma's beautiful tree fell."

A little bit later it was Dwight Dean's turn.

"The hurricane pulled the whole roof down," Dwight said. "It blew everything away in my house, and then we ran to the bathroom. All of the windows are gone. Everything is gone. Now the sun is drying out the house."

One after the other they spoke in this room at Blue Lakes where three kindergarten classes gathered, all these little people with big stories and wide, bright eyes.

But the day's most telling moments may have been the frequent silences of the morning roll call. Seventy children were supposed to have come to the classroom shared by Crystal and Dwight. Only 23 showed up. The gaps left by the other 47 spoke of the thousands of families who have either moved away with friends and relatives or are still too preoccupied with the new struggles of south Dade living to figure out where their children's new bus stop is.

Though most of Dade County's school population of 312,000 made it to class, some schools reported attendance of fewer than half the expected number, and absenteeism tended to be highest among the student bodies of 10 schools that were too badly damaged to open.

Those students were supposed to double up with new classmates at 10 other schools, in some cases by going to class on an afternoon shift.

At least 3,000 Dade students have officially transferred out of the county since the hurricane, officials say, and many others apparently have left without notifying their old schools.

It is a minor miracle some students had schools to go to at all. Even after postponing the first day of classes by two weeks, an early evaluation concluded that 35 schools wouldn't be ready in time. Other schools were serving as temporary shelters for some of the estimated 175,000 people left homeless by the storm. And the school system's insurance coverage of $150 million didn't promise much help in fixing damages estimated at twice that amount.

Then the U.S. Navy Seabees units began putting their construction skills to work.

"They really bailed us out, and they're not charging us for it, either," said Dade schools spokesman Henry Fraind. "The work they did would have cost millions" of dollars.

The efforts of the Seabees cut the list of unworkable schools down to 10. That still meant at least 10,000 students would be affected, and so officials met until late one night last week to finish a plan to send them to 10 new locations.

Even then, there was still plenty to do. Looters had stolen furniture and equipment. Debris was still piled on playgrounds and rooftops. About 150 of the county's 1,200 school bus drivers couldn't be found.

So, calling on Washington and the military at every turn, the teachers and administrators pulled the equivalent of a student's pre-exam all-nighter, cramming a week's worth of effort into the past few days.

Of the 10 schools still beyond repair, probably the worst damage was suffered by R. R. Moton Elementary in the south Dade community of Perrine. Principal Yvonne Hinson arrived at the school a few hours after the winds calmed to find it flooded, with the roof blown off and the windows gone. She then watched in despair over the next few days as looters destroyed much of the rest, wrenching televisions, computers and videocassette recorders from their bolted positions.

She and the teaching and custodial staffs packed up what little was left during the past few days and moved eight miles north to where their students had been reassigned -- Blue Lakes Elementary.

Yesterday, Ms. Hinson shared the office of Blue Lakes Principal Joanne Cann. Each stayed on top of the situation with a walkie-talkie. Each seemed almost constantly on the run. They have both worked double shifts since late last week. So have their teachers.

Meanwhile, they have been buoyed by widespread offers of help. Schools from Washington, D.C., Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Washington state have offered to "adopt" their schools and pitch in.

But based on yesterday's attendance figures, the biggest chore still to be done is finding a way to let students know which schools to go to.

"We expect more to come back as the days go by and people see it's all right to go ahead and send their kids," said Maria Rappaport, a teacher at Blue Lakes.

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