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Friday, September 9, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Some young evacuees want another rescue — from school

The Associated Press

HOUSTON — The first day of school was especially wrenching for some young evacuees who were leaving their parents' side yesterday for the first time since Hurricane Katrina struck.

Districts across the country are absorbing the children into public schools and awaiting state and federal reimbursement.

But the Houston school district, with nearly 2,000 new children to educate, also reopened two schools that it had closed last spring because of low enrollment, and devoted them entirely to evacuee children.

Derwinique Sylvester clung to her father's leg outside the Astrodome yesterday, waiting for the bus that would take her to her first day in one of those schools.

The 7-year-old's hair was expertly done. She wore a pretty white shirt bedecked with rhinestones, one of the few pieces of clothing she rescued as she and her family escaped New Orleans.

On one wrist, Derwinique wore a pink band that marked her as an Astrodome resident. On the other was a blue band that said "Douglass Elementary" and her name.

"I just want to learn stuff," she said quietly as tears welled in her bright eyes. "And play outside. Maybe I'll make a friend."

Frederick Douglass Elementary, in one of Houston's oldest black neighborhoods in sight of downtown's skyline, opened yesterday with Derwinique and 160 others bused there from the Astrodome and the George R. Brown Convention Center. J.D. Ryan Elementary, in a working-class neighborhood north of downtown, also opened for children displaced by the hurricane.

Almost 19,000 children displaced by the hurricane were enrolled in Texas public schools. That number could swell to 50,000, according to the state Education Agency.

Most of the children smiled and played. But one little girl sobbed so uncontrollably that rescue workers standing near her began to cry as well.

Douglass Principal Sue Ann Payne said she is prepared to comfort, as well as teach.

"We have the facilities that we can take care of any problems that they have," she said. "But most of all we're going to give them love because that makes the difference."

Some parents had separation anxiety, too.

Richard Washington, who spent three days living on New Orleans' filthy streets after the storm, gently pried a teddy bear from his 5-year-old daughter Elegria's hands. Clutching it to his chest, he promised he would wait with the bear for her after school.

"It doesn't feel too good to let her go, but I don't have any choice," Washington said. "It's better for her to go to school."

Some of the teachers will be familiar. Zella Markey, a former principal at a Christian school in New Orleans, is teaching kindergarten at Douglass.

"I'm able to relate to them," she said. "I'm ready with open arms to give them a haven and to bring them to a sense of normalcy."

Some students shrugged off the unfamiliar surroundings. Fourth-grader Winston Zeno said the Astrodome was so boring, he was eager for a new challenge.

"I want to go to the library and to recess and do activities and sports," he said with a huge grin.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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