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St. Bernard Parish students prepare return to school

CHALMETTE, La.—Nine-year-old Kenneth Sierra showed up with his parents to register for school, one of 700 students who'll return next Monday (Nov. 14) out of the 8,800 there were in this parish southeast of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit.

"This is my home. I'll be strong," said Kenneth, son of a St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Department lieutenant.

In the entire parish—encompassed by Chalmette, Meroux, Violet and small fishing villages with names such as Reggio and Shell—every dwelling, business and government office was left uninhabitable by flooding. Wreckage-lined subdivisions are devoid of people. People live in trailers, or in other towns.

In the driveway at the school district headquarters near Chalmette High School last week, children skipped along with backpacks donated by students from New Jersey. Parents hugged each other, and some cried.

Gretchen Nicosia, the wife of an oyster fisherman who sent his family to safety and rode out the hurricane aboard his boat, enrolled her two sons.

"Maybe this will become home again," she said. "This is the best thing that has happened since then. Everyone here is excited."

School will begin for all the students in the St. Bernard Parish Public School district in classrooms set up in a dozen trailers near the high school's football field. During the storm, the high school provided a life preserver for 2,000 residents who took shelter there; now they're taking a step toward recovery by re-enrolling their children for school at district headquarters nearby.

"In this case we're starting from ground zero. From scratch," Doris Voitier, the district's school superintendent, said as she watched parents register their children. She hopes that professional cleaning teams will finish in time to allow a few regular school buildings to open next month.

A small number of teachers will return initially, their salaries paid by some of the last of the district's funding, which has been cut severely because flood-wrecked real estate doesn't produce much tax revenue. Many families in St. Bernard and other heavily hit parishes have moved to other areas of Louisiana or out of the state, which means that state funding for public education will be shifted to areas where the students now reside. That will cause more hurdles as Voitier tries to rebuild.

"There is no Daddy Warbucks for this blue-collar community," said Wayne Warner, who's been the principal of Chalmette High for three decades. "We'll find a way to keep going."

Warner said the key to a comeback for the school district was rooted in the cooperation and bravery shown by many who had been trapped by the storm at the high school and gym, one of the few large buildings in this parish of 68,000 people that had a second floor above the water.

Voitier said she found it impossible to separate the days of being marooned from the challenges of reopening a school district without proper funding or even usable buildings. During a review of the district's plans to reopen, she went back to the story of Chalmette High's days when its second floor was the only dry ground as far as the eye could see.

She said those who'd sheltered there included dozens of elderly people on respirators. Helicopters on their way to New Orleans passed without stopping, she said.

Voitier quickly wiped a tear when she got to the part that concerned an 80-year-old man, whose oxygen tank was about to hit empty. Gasoline to run a small generator that operated his respirator was also about to run out.

"State Senator Walter Boasso came by in a boat with an oxygen tank," Voitier said. "I don't know where he found it.'

She said Boasso was constantly on the radio with Fire Chief Tom Stone.

"I taught Tommy in high school. If it hadn't been for him and the others with boats, I don't know what we would have done," she said. "He got us gas and some food."

As for the opening day of school, Voitier said, a special ceremony is planned. Each student will get a box of supplies, even though she has no idea where to get the money to buy them.

"I'll get it somewhere," she said. "Somehow."


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

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