Schools in 15 states welcome `Katrina's Kids'

The Children

Katrina's Wake

September 07, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. - On the first day of classes since Hurricane Katrina, you couldn't tell the local students from the out-of-towners at Our Lady of Mercy School. They wore the same uniforms, took the same quizzes and ate the same lunches as everyone else.

The teachers even knew their names.

The school of 821 children added 200, mostly from the New Orleans area, virtually overnight. Uniforms, backpacks, notebooks - even socks and tennis shoes - were all donated and piled up on the stage in the gym. Class sizes bulged from 28 to 35, but no one was complaining.

"I can't say it's been without stress," said Carolyn Guidry, the principal of Our Lady of Mercy. "But it's been so worthwhile and so heartwarming to see the outpouring of care for these students."

Almost 190,000 students from the storm-ravaged areas must find new schools. Officials said they have scattered to 15 states, including Maryland, and in some places school systems have commandeered former Wal-Mart and Kmart locations to establish schools. Systems are hiring more teachers, leasing more buses and buying more books and desks.

Officials say they might get waivers from state and federal testing requirements, but they face a range of issues, beyond space and supplies, in helping students whose lives have been turned upside down. This year in Louisiana, there will be fewer captains of the football team and valedictorians than last year. Some schools are adding psychologists to help cope.

2,000 added

"It is a tremendous number of students for us to absorb," said Tai St. Julien, a spokeswoman for the East Baton Rouge school system, which has registered about 2,000 new students on top of its typical enrollment of about 45,000. "But they're here, and their parents want a quality education for their children."

The parents have stood in long lines outside schools and put their names on waiting lists. They have spent days driving from school to school, hoping to find an opening. And the children are facing the prospect of spending a year away from their old friends and familiar activities.

"I don't know when I'll see my friends again," said Jonique Guidry (not a relative of the Mercy principal), 17, who was to be captain of the cheerleading team at Belle Chase High School outside New Orleans. She is transferring to a school in East Baton Rouge, where she plans to get on the cheerleading squad.

"I might not be the captain, but I'll settle," she said. "I'm just ready to go to school."

School officials told her they would be in touch this week and that she could start at her new school Monday. Catholic and private schools are absorbing new students as they arrive, but larger districts are coping with registration and assembling the resources to handle many more students than they anticipated.

More than expected

In Lafayette, La., about two hours west of New Orleans, system officials expected about 1,000 Katrina victims would enroll. Instead, they got 3,000. Employees spent the weekend processing the new enrollees and assigning them schools, but their work wasn't finished yesterday.

"To get three times what we expected changes our plans a bit," said Justine Sutley, a spokeswoman for the Lafayette system.

The Orleans Parish school system, which enrolls 73,000 students, could be closed for the school year. And schools in Jefferson Parish, with an enrollment of 51,000, are expected to remain closed for the first semester. The Archdiocese of New Orleans, with 50,000 students, expects schools to remain closed until January.

Germain McCarthy, a seventh-grader at the Holy Name of Jesus school in New Orleans, said the first floor of that school was under several feet of water. He and his parents were running among six schools in Baton Rouge yesterday in hopes that one might have an opening.

Germain was wearing his school uniform - a navy blue polo short and tan shorts - and was ready to jump in. He said that if nothing was available immediately, his parents (both university professors) would home-school him until something opened up.

"I want to be a doctor, so I need to get into school," he said. He plays basketball - his teams have won three consecutive championships, he said - and he was sure he would be in school in time for the season. "Some place is going to have room, and it's going to be a good place," he said.

In Jackson, Miss., school officials are struggling to get their own students back to class while planning for an influx of as many as 1,000 new students. But some Jackson schools lack electricity and working phones, and officials are worried about securing enough fuel for buses.

Other systems from around the country have stepped in to help. A school in Hagerstown offered to send science textbooks. Officials know it is important to children's well-being to get them into school, even if conditions aren't ideal.

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