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New Orleans Archdiocese Celebrates Reopening Of Some Catholic Schools

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At dawn, in the parking lot at Archbishop Rummel High School, religion teacher Lee Baker greets senior Mark Daniels Jr. with a bear hug.

"What's up?" he asks, "How many feet of water did you get?"

Mr. Daniels, who lived in the 9th Ward of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, responds that his street and home were flooded with 8 or 9 feet of water.

Mr. Baker's house, in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans, got 10 feet of water. Both teacher and student left behind their homes, which were flooded, and belongings, most of which were washed away.

"We're going to hang in there," Mr. Baker tells the student.

It's Oct. 3, the first day back to school at the all-male Archbishop Rummel High School since Hurricane Katrina hit the greater New Orleans area on Aug. 29. The school is one of six high schools and 30 elementary schools that the sprawling Archdiocese of New Orleans is opening this week in Jefferson Parish. The parish is neighbor to both the Orleans and St. Bernard parishes.

While most schools in the New Orleans Archdiocese are unlikely to open until January at the earliest, the Rev. William Maestri, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese, says that he hopes some will open sooner.

In the last two weeks of September, the archdiocese put about 15,000 Catholic school students back in school by reopening schools in areas outside the city of New Orleans, according to Father Maestri. The opening of Catholic schools in Jefferson Parish this week will bring the number of Catholic school students returning to schools run by the archdiocese to about 30,000. That's more than half of the nearly 50,000 students enrolled in some 100 archdiocesan schools prior to the hurricane. All archdiocesan schools closed at least temporarily after the storm.

Mr. Daniels and his family have settled for now in a rented home in Laplace, La. "It feels good to be back with my friends," he says about returning to school. He's the president of the school band and is carrying his trombone in a case. "We're trying to put our marching season back together," he says, "We have a competition in a week."

Mr. Baker is temporarily living in Houma, La. He's happy to still have a job. His wife expects that she's lost her job as an elementary school teacher for New Orleans public schools. Baker got up at 4 a.m. to drive the 70 miles to Metairie to arrive shortly before the 6:50 a.m. school day started.

Like some other Catholic schools in the area, Archbishop Rummel will run a double shift to accommodate hundreds of still-displaced students. The schools call the schedule "platooning."

For the morning shift, the school has enrolled mostly pre-hurricane Archbishop Rummel students. On this first day of school after the hurricane, turnout is high: Only about 100 of the original 1,300 students in 8th-12th grades are missing. Some displaced students from flooded high schools have been added as well to the morning shift.

Afternoon Shift for Displaced Students

Starting Oct. 5, Archbishop Rummel will add an afternoon shift with about 1,300 more students, comprised completely of students displaced from other high schools. The afternoon shift will be coed.

Only two of Mr. Baker's students in his first-period religion class haven't returned to school. And of the 23 students present, only one, 16-year-old Arthur D'Herete is new. Mr. D'Herete previously attended Archbishop Hannan High School in Meraux, La., which was severely damaged by the hurricane.

Mr. Baker asks the students to clap in support of Mr. D'Herete. "His school is gone," Mr. Baker tells the students. "As my grandmother used to say, 'There ain't there no more,' " And he adds, speaking to Mr. D'Herete, "Welcome to Archbishop Rummel. This is a different kind of religion class, but I know that we'll connect."

Then he turns to the other students and says: "I don't want him hanging out alone. I need three people who will check on Arthur this week."

Three students immediately raise their hands.

Most of the Archbishop Rummel students live in Metairie or nearby towns, such as Kenner. Most say their homes suffered minor damage from the hurricane. But they were forced to evacuate, staying in several towns or cities before returning home. Some students say their parents have lost their jobs.

Metairie isn't exactly up and running like it was before the hurricane, according to parents who were dropping their children off at school. Grocery stores don't have much on the shelves and some gas stations are closed.

But everyone is surprised and pleased that so many families have returned to the town—and so many students have re-enrolled at Archbishop Rummel.

Father Maestri expects that the work of getting Catholic schools in the Orleans and St. Bernard parishes reopened will be much more difficult. "One of the issues looming larger and larger is housing," he says. “You can have schools open—and have food and even jobs. But the question is: Where do families and students live? So many of the homes [in those parishes] have been decimated."

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