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Katrina's Children Find New Schools, and Fears

Ohanian Comment: I'm not going to talk about a student in special ed taking Algebra II. Kudos to Houston for setting up a buddy system and the counseling services, but I worry about the Louisiana kids being forced into a manic test prep atmosphere. I hope great efforts are being made to find them housing.

By Michael Winerip


DAVE SCHRANDT is in charge of registering homeless children for the Cypress-Fairbanks school district, and when he really gets cranked up, he can fill out the six forms to enroll a hurricane evacuee in 15 minutes.

"O.K., Tyrone, you get free breakfast, free lunch, free school supplies, and you'll start tomorrow," he said, madly checking off boxes one day last week. Tyrone Edwards, 16, and Emma Collins, his grandmother, from St. Bernard Parish, La., barely had time to nod before another box was checked.

"Address?" Mr. Schrandt asked, and not waiting, he wrote "8350 Highway 6N," the address of the shelter at Copperfield Church.

Mr. Schrandt asked what kind of math Tyrone was taking back home, and when all the boy could answer was "Math 3," Mr. Schrandt guessed it was probably Algebra II, wrote that in, then put a question mark beside "science," since Tyrone knew he was taking a science, but not which one.

"Special ed?" Mr. Schrandt said, jumping to the next question.

"He had both special ed and the regular," Mrs. Collins said.

"Almost done," said Mr. Schrandt, who asked if Tyrone needed clothes. Mrs. Collins said Tyrone's bag was left behind when they were helicoptered out of the flood, so Mr. Schrandt made notes on Tyrone's pants size (28-30 waist), shirt size (large) and shoe size (11).

"Biggest shoes I've had so far were 18's," Mr. Schrandt said. "So that's it. We're done." And the next morning, before 7, a bus pulled up to the church for Tyrone, one of 1,910 Katrina kids who have enrolled in this suburban district, which includes a small part of Houston and northwest Harris County.

While much of the federal response to Katrina has been its own epic disaster, a rare bright light is the McKinney-Vento Act, federal legislation passed in 2002 to ensure that homeless children are quickly enrolled in school. The law requires that every school district in America have a homeless liaison worker like Mr. Schrandt; that children are registered immediately, even those without records; and that transportation is provided.

Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children, said she was hearing from as far away as Alaska that the enrollment of the 370,000 displaced children has generally been swift and good hearted.

"It's almost like the three years since the law was passed were a rehearsal for Katrina," she said. "Districts were ready. We're seeing school officials take, not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law to heart." And Texas, which has enrolled the most evacuees, 44,812, "gets the gold star," she said.

At Owens Elementary here there is a room called the Closet, stocked with clothing donations that are organized by size, so flood families can shop free for what they need. Each new child is assigned a classroom buddy, a playground buddy, a cafeteria buddy and a bus buddy, so instantly they have four new friends.

In the teachers' lunchroom at Danish Elementary there is a Star of Hope Tree. The stars list evacuee families' needs; teachers pick off a star and shop for the items. "My 15-year-old got three pairs of pants, four to five brand- new shirts," said Judith Howard, a mother of five, who is living doubled up with her sister's family.

There was so little red tape enrolling that New Orleans parents like Barbara Varnado and Latanya Hawkins did not even know the name of their children's new district; they thought they were in Houston city schools.

That is the good news. The hard news on relocation is just emerging. From visits to several schools and shelters in this district of 85,000, the third largest in the state, it is clear that a major task lies ahead, teaching and counseling the newcomers. Principals and teachers say many seem to be behind local students academically and to be traumatized.

At Owens (41 evacuees) and Danish (31), teachers have just begun assessing the new students, and are finding many with significant academic gaps. This is not surprising. The schools here are in their sixth week; New Orleans children had been in school a week when the hurricane hit and are beginning here just as the local students finish midterm exams.

They have been transplanted to a state with an intensive test-driven curriculum that they have not been prepared for. And they have come from an urban district considered one of the worst and poorest in the nation to a middle- to upper-class high-achieving suburban district. "We're recommending a lot for extra tutoring," said Laura Barrett, the Owens principal.

Add to that the effect of the horrors that many have seen. Sadie Woodard, head of counseling for the district, is having every new child interviewed individually and using retired counselors to run weekly support groups. "I have five or six - they have this look, it just breaks your heart, the fear in their eyes," Ms. Barrett said.

At Owens, several have fallen asleep during reading and music and on the soft pillows in the library. A lot still live in church shelters, crowded hotel rooms and doubled up in homes with relatives. The other day, Ms. Barrett carried out a 4-year old prekindergarten girl who was snoring and being sent home for rest. "We tell them it's O.K., they're not in trouble, they can put their heads down," Ms. Barrett said. "They just need a nap."

Aisha Brown's first-grade daughter, India, was sent "home" from Adam Elementary to the Cypress Bible Church shelter to get some sleep. "She hasn't been right since the storm," Ms. Brown said. "India saw everything."

Ms. Brown's three children were saved from the rising waters when the parents emptied their refrigerator, broke off the door and floated them six blocks to a bridge. "India saw people falling off the bridge and drowning, screaming for help. She saw shooting at the Superdome." The mother said that when they finally got on an evacuation bus, "India asked me, 'Is there going to be shooting on the bus, too?' "

At the church shelter, the mother said, people have been extraordinarily kind, but India remains fearful. "She sleepwalks and cries, hollering for me," she said. As parishioners filed into the church hall last week, India was briefly separated from her parents. "I found her under a table crying," said the mother.

LAST week, at 7:30 Monday morning, Brandon Hart paced the lobby of the Hampton Inn where he was living, eager for the school bus to arrive. He said he loved his new middle school, Labay; it was better than his New Orleans school. "I want to stay here," he said. "I used to live in a bad neighborhood. It's better out here. It's quiet. And I'm on the football team. I'm going to my first practice today. They told me I was going to start at tight end. They seen me play on the playground. I'm pretty good."

The next morning, back in the lobby he looked miserable. "I couldn't practice," he said. "They're getting ready for the game. They said it would be too confusing for everyone. They said I had to wait a few days." By Saturday night, the family had checked out and was heading to Baton Rouge, La., to try resettling there. The volatility is reflected in the numbers. Last week, there were 1,910 Katrina children enrolled in Cypress-Fairbanks district; Monday, it was 1,632.

At Cypress Falls High, the principal gathered the 95 Katrina children to welcome them and urged that they join clubs to integrate more quickly into the school. But Reyna Turcios, 16, who came from New Orleans with her aunt and three cousins after their apartment was destroyed, said she did not think she would join anything. "I don't want to get in there and do all the stuff and get so happy and then leave again," she said. "I don't like being here in Houston. I miss my friends, my school, my teachers. It seems impossible, but I wish we could go back and have our own life."

Her aunt, Maria Duarte, said that the children had been treated kindly here, but that they did not feel they belonged. "I see they feel like an ugly duck," she said. "My little one, he tells me I'm a bad mother. He doesn't want to get on the bus in the morning. I have to drag him. I say, 'If you don't go to school, I'll go to jail.' He says, 'Good, we'll go together, who cares.' "

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times




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