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Displaced schoolchildren find welcome arms in new schools as officials scramble to find teachers, books, classroom space

BATON ROUGE, La.—Brandon Roberts' 5-year-old son had just started adjusting to life as a kindergartner in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck.

"It would have been his third week," said Roberts, who was enrolling his son at schools in Baton Rouge on Friday. "He was ready to go to school—backpacks, new uniforms, school shoes, folders, markers, basically everything they needed for school—all underwater."

Roberts hoped that his son's return to school would create a sense of normalcy.

"They'll have to concentrate on their books, homework and lessons, instead of the water we walked through," he said.

The parents of an estimated 125,000 New Orleans children are fanning out across Louisiana and multiple other states, trying to find new homes and enroll their children in school. As those schools absorb all the new students, many of them also are hiring New Orleans' displaced teachers and school administrators.

The rush is on for everything from school uniforms to pencils. Principals are lugging furniture and offering hugs and tears to the homeless. Last week's teachers are this week's social workers, as Katrina strains schools in at least seven states.

"Last night we were movers," said Lynn Barnes, the principal at Briarmeadow Charter School in Houston, a city where 8,000 Louisiana students are expected. "Parents and teachers were taking trundle beds and tables up three flights of stairs. A family had walked into our door with a 2-month-old, a first-grader, a second-grader, Mom and Dad and nothing else."

Tens of thousands are expected to register in Louisiana schools beyond Katrina's reach and thousands more in other Gulf Coast states. Houston officials said 557 students had enrolled in just two days. By Friday, 1,000 kids had shown up in Shreveport, La.

Louisiana Department of Education officials are urging all state school districts to register students as quickly as they can, said Meg Casper, the director of communications. They're also asking districts to hire all teachers and support staff who seek shelter in their areas.

Lafayette, La., schools already have registered 2,500 new students and hired more than 100 teachers.

With more students and more teachers, schools are trying to figure out how to pay for more textbooks and classrooms.

"There are still a lot of details to work out," Casper said. "What is important is that we get these students into safe, secure classrooms."

Schools are crucial in hurricane recovery, said Eugene Provenzo, a University of Miami education professor who wrote "In the Eye of Hurricane Andrew: Public Schools and the Rebuilding of Community."

Schools often provide initial emergency relief such as shelters, but over the longer term they also provide the continuity that children suddenly lack. School districts suddenly forced to take in evacuees must provide extra counseling for kids and even perks for teachers who take on the added load, he said.

"The analogy I use is that it's like everyone has been in a car wreck: Some people are dazed, but others in the back seat went through the windshield," Provenzo said. "So the people staggering around outside with whiplash are expected to help the people who went through the windshield."

Louisiana schools might end up handling the majority of the displaced students, but many other parents have taken their children to live out of state with relatives. Schools in South Carolina and Ohio have requested records on students.

Vince McCaskill, a spokesman for the Memphis, Tenn., school district, said Saturday that 350 displaced students already had enrolled there and that number was expected to swell to 1,000 Tuesday when schools reopened after the Labor Day holiday. "We're dealing with a massive population displacement, and it will be a challenge," he said.

Charlotte Placide, the superintendent of the 46,000-student East Baton Rouge Parish school system, said administrators had to do a count before deciding where to squeeze several thousand anticipated new arrivals into the district's 88 schools.

School officials hope donations will help pay for books and supplies. They've been forced to open temporary buildings and are searching for churches and vacant buildings to hold classes in, she said.

"It's pretty tough," she said. "How do you find the space? Obviously, we don't have it. But we'll do whatever necessary to help these children."

In Shreveport, the Caddo Parish School District started preparing as soon as the wind began to blow. Superintendent Ollie Tyler was deputy superintendent in New Orleans for three years.

"As soon as I heard there was a hurricane coming, I told my staff, `I need a plan for the students, because they will be here,' " she said.

Many families show up with fragile emotions, with only the dirty clothes on their backs.

Barnes' school in Houston found itself with 13 displaced students from six families, some with nothing to wear and nowhere to sleep.

Students at Houston's West Side High raised $16,000 in a day, while teachers and parents at another school scrounged their closets to equip a family of five.

"They're just flooding in," said senior Noralea Jordan, who led the fund-raising drive at West Side. "Even if classes are a little bigger, I don't think anyone would mind."

With an estimated 11,000 storm victims living in the city's Astrodome, school officials are ready to resurrect three closed schools, tap extra teachers and seek donations of school uniforms, which are required in many Texas schools.

The sense of loss is no different for displaced teachers.

Kim-Anh Nguyen, a first-grade teacher in Jefferson Parish, La., had just finished the first week of school when the hurricane hit. She's applying for a job in Baton Rouge.

"I spent a lot of time preparing for the school year, and now I have to start all over again and find a job," she said. "Being a teacher you wonder what happened to your students."

Two registration centers in Baton Rouge opened Thursday, and by Friday afternoon about 250 to 500 students had registered; many more were expected.

"I'm shy and I have to start at a new school," said Dedrionne McCarvy, 12, who was attending school in the Gentilly neighborhood in New Orleans. "I'm gonna have to make new friends, but then I'm gonna have to go back to New Orleans, once they flush all the water out."

"As long as she has the basic needs and supplies and a bus to pick her up, she'll be able to adjust," said her father, Dedrick McCarvy. "You don't want them to miss their education, no matter how stressed you are or what the situation."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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