Students adjusting after Hurricane Katrina
The Associated Press
HOUSTON — Hurricane Katrina catapulted teenager Charbresha Carmouche on an odyssey from her New Orleans home, where 8 feet of water poured through the roof, to the convention center, where yes, she says, it was that bad.
When the storm and all its chaos subsided, she landed at Westside High School, a sprawling red-brick expanse set on 50 acres among attractive gated communities.
Ask Carmouche what has been most difficult about moving to Houston, and the talkative senior offers a multiple-choice array of possibilities: Struggling to keep up in class. Putting off plans to graduate early. Dealing with stray snide remarks from local kids.
Then, in a voice that always sounds as if she is close to tears, she finds her answer.
"Two of my friends, I never heard from since the hurricane," she says. "And nobody that went to school with us, nobody that used to hang with us, they don't know where they are."
She falls briefly, uncharacteristically, silent. Then: "It's a question. I wonder sometimes whether they're dead, or ... Where they at? Who knows?"
Trying to keep in touch with friends flung far by Katrina — or, more than two months later, just trying to find them — is but one of the ways life has changed for the 370,000 schoolchildren displaced by the hurricane.
The adjustments they have made and the ways they improvise in their new lives seem as wide and as incomprehensible as the hurricane effects.
Westside High swelled past 3,000 students with the addition of 300 teen evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, about 200 of whom remain enrolled.
The natives and the newcomers have marked their turf. Paul Castro, principal of Westside High, can walk through his gleaming cafeteria after the closing bell and point you to where the New Orleans kids hang out and where the Houston kids hang out.
"I don't think anyone has understood it," he says. "This would be a great sociology experiment."
Members of the class of Katrina are aware of the upheaval in their lives: It shows itself in the morning's decision of what to wear, of which potential new friends to embrace and which to eye warily.
At Montbello High School in Denver, which has five Katrina students floating in its 1,500-student population and where the theme from "Rocky" blares in the halls to sound a three-minute warning for the next class, there are reminders in the shoes.
Terry Butler, a 17-year-old junior who left New Orleans with two days' worth of clothes, noticed his new classmates wear Reebok or Converse, shoes he thought were out of style.
Sophomore Geena Caronna, from Chalmette, La., has settled in at Pearl High School, just outside of Jackson, Miss. But her casual clothing and lack of makeup prompt disapproving looks from other girls.
"People ask me all the time, 'Why don't you dress up?' Because I don't want to. I think it's uncomfortable to wear tight jeans in class."
They dodge stray caustic remarks. At Westside, when Hurricane Rita was approaching Texas just weeks after Katrina, one junior girl heard someone say, "Oh, look. There's a hurricane coming to Texas. Where's OUR money?"
Scot Pilie, a bright sixth-grader from New Orleans who now attends Pin Oak Middle School in Houston, says he heard it from a teacher: "Oh, New Orleans really stinks. It really does stink."
He says he asked why she would say such a thing about his hometown. He says she answered: "Are you drunk? Because a lot of New Orleans people are drunk."
These are exceptions, of course. Katrina students in new schools across the country said for the most part their classmates had been welcoming, some even turning into quick friends.
Vernard Henley, a senior who has moved to Westside High from New Orleans East, may return to New Orleans when classes start again in January. He wonders whether making new friends is worth it.
"You don't know who to trust when you're talking to somebody, so you kinda gotta keep to yourself," he says.
Henley was an honor student in New Orleans. At Westside in Houston, he tried to enroll in advanced-placement classes, but his new school had started classes Aug. 15, long before his New Orleans school. He was four to five chapters behind, he figures, and was assigned to regular classes.
"My math class right now, the stuff that we're learning in the middle of the first semester, I already learned in the first semester at my old school," he says. "So if I go back to my old school in January, like we're planning on doing, I'm going to be so far behind it's going to be ridiculous, you know what I'm saying?"
Some students from the Katrina region have shut down, lost in their new classes, not socially invested in their new homes, not sure when, if ever, they will return to their old schools.
But teachers and administrators say those cases are relatively rare, and most of the storm-tossed children are trying to catch up to a bewildering, new environment.
"School just started two months ago and I don't know nothing," says Ariana Dison, an eighth-grader whose Katrina odyssey took her from home in St. Bernard Parish to a shelter in Opelousas, La., to Beaumont, Texas, and then to Charlotte, N.C., as Rita took aim at Texas. "I have to get my education as good as I can."
To keep pace, the Katrina students meet with guidance counselors, try to wring a few extra minutes from a teacher after class. But these students are seeking help from teachers who are themselves struggling to adjust to the influx.
At Westside, a school administrator asked teachers to respond to a questionnaire that asked, "What challenges has your school experienced as a result of the hurricanes and increased student enrollment?"
Many mentioned the difficulty of packing additional students into classes that already had up to 28 students in them and were now up to nearly 40.
There are not enough books, lockers, computers, pencils, paper, teachers.
While many wrote that it was difficult to bring the New Orleans children up to speed with their own, their opinions of the students varied from one classroom to the next.
From one teacher: "I have four students from New Orleans. Two left, went to another state. Two are still with me. They are well-behaved, nice kids. I enjoyed them very much."
From another: "The lack of respect and the disinterest from some of the students is not acceptable.
It is a shame that we as a community have gone above and beyond the call of duty to assist and make them feel at home, and to be treated this way is a very sad statement."
Middle and high schools are nothing if not social battlefields. Class and race and turf — actual physical space in a hallway or study hall or cafeteria — are clearly delineated.
But in some schools, Katrina has added a new fault line: newcomers versus locals.
At Natchez High School, a predominantly black campus in a historic river town in southwest Mississippi, there have been two fights, one attributed to a New Orleans student moving in on the covert cigarette concession in the bathroom, the other to a Mississippi boy showing unwanted interest in a Louisiana girl.
"I guess cultural nuances went to the degree that it was our students' contention — as we looked into the situation — that 'We are not going to let anyone come in and claim what is ours,' " Natchez High Principal James Loftin says.
The students were disciplined with short suspensions.
At Westside in Houston, a fight late last month started with two students bumping into each other in the hallway.
"All the sudden it became a Texas-Louisiana thing," Castro, the principal, said. "It got defined as something bigger. We have a group of kids who feel displaced and disconnected, and we have another group that's not all that excited they're here."
It was in mid-October, more than a month after Katrina struck and the first evacuees began trickling into Westside, before everyone realized that the Katrina students were not going anywhere, Castro says. There was new competition for spots on sports teams and for dates.
"So you have a fight, and kids who aren't even involved want to jump in because they're mad," the principal says. "They're mad at the system, they're mad at perceived insults, and — boom — you have a problem."
Contributing to this story were Associated Press writers Colleen Slevin in Denver, Tim Whitmire in Charlotte, N.C., Valerie Bauman in Natchez, Miss., Eric Tucker in Middletown, R.I., and Kelly Kurt-Brown in Broken Arrow, Okla.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company