It's back to school -- 1,000 miles from home

Students: Several hundred young Gulf Coast evacuees are resuming their education in districts throughout Maryland.

Katrina's Wake

September 12, 2005|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,SUN STAFF

They took math tests, looked for worthy lunchroom spots, stuffed books into shiny, new backpacks and found their way down unfamiliar corridors into unfamiliar classrooms.

The school bell rang, and it was back to school last week for hundreds of young Hurricane Katrina evacuees who had turned, overnight, into the new kids in class when they enrolled in private and public schools across Maryland.

It was also a return to some semblance of normality, though normal is still a remote notion for students who have fled flooded communities and don't know when they'll see their old friends or how, exactly, to navigate the social and academic terrain in their new schools.

"It's weird to look at the schedule and not recognize any names of teachers or where the classes are," said Rob Rosencrans, 15, a New Orleans native who is staying with relatives in Columbia and has attended Atholton High School since Wednesday. "But my outlook is, the hurricane hit, now I'm here in Maryland. There's nothing I can do about it, so accept it as a fact and move on."

In the aftermath of the hurricane, thousands of students who were displaced have been pouring into schools around the country -- the Houston school system alone enrolled nearly 2,000 new students last week.

So far, about 280 evacuees have enrolled in Maryland public schools, and it's likely that several hundred more will register in the coming weeks, said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. Baltimore City and 20 counties had taken in displaced students as of Friday; Montgomery County had the most, 70, followed by Prince George's County with 40, Frederick County with 24, Charles County with 27 and Howard County with 23.

Twenty-four students have enrolled in Archdiocese of Baltimore Catholic schools, which are, for now, waiving tuition.

Karen Murphy, the principal at Resurrection-St. Paul School in Ellicott City, said a parent who lost her home in the storm burst into tears when she heard she wouldn't have to pay tuition for the year. Private and public schools also have been taking up collections and donating everything from gift certificates to backpacks.

St. Mary's Elementary School in Annapolis has 11 displaced students. "They've been given all their school supplies and uniforms," said Margaret Dammeyer, the principal. "We've provided six beds, clothing, grocery store food, cars. A lot of support and prayer." The school community also raised $12,000 in just over two days for Catholic Charities USA, she said.

Federal law requires states to enroll homeless children in public schools, whether or not they have transcripts, immunization records and other documents that typically are required. As such, many of the displaced students are being processed quickly and none has been turned away, said Maryland State Department of Education spokeswoman Linda Bazerjian.

Eventually, the schools will have to re-evaluate special-education students and figure out how to translate graduation requirements across state lines. But for now, Bazerjian said, "We're in the business of education. We want to educate any kids and get them back on the course for learning, because the bottom line is we don't know when any of those school systems will reopen, if ever."

Tiffany Conway, 34, a mother of four, feels she can wait it out if she has to. Her home in Gulfport, Miss., escaped with only a few leaks and holes, but with the future of her children's school uncertain, she and her husband moved the family into her parents' home in Columbia. She is installed in her childhood bedroom now, and her three school-age children are attending Thunder Hill Elementary School -- her alma mater.

"We just felt like it was best to get as much of a normal life as possible under the circumstances," she said. "Though there are a lot of adjustments, it's a winning situation being surrounded by the love of family and being able to put them in a school -- and a good school."

On Thursday, her son Timothy, 7, was flashing a gap-toothed smile in his second-grade classroom. The class had learned how to spell "Mississippi" and had found his state on the classroom map. He told his new classmates about stockpiling food and water in his house before the storm. A school staff member gave him a stuffed animal, a furry brown dog that he didn't put down all day.

Being in a new school was a little scary at first, but "I get to see new friends," he said. "I get to see new teachers."

For Will Oakland, a senior at Atholton High School as of this week, the transition is a bit more complicated. He totaled his pickup truck on the way out of New Orleans, he said. He wasn't hurt, but now he's a senior, down one car and down one well-paying after-school job.

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