Published Online: October 5, 2005

Many Seats Still Empty as Schools Outside New Orleans Reopen

Life in this community near New Orleans took an important step toward returning to normal this week, as students filed into Bonnabel High School and 78 other Jefferson Parish public schools for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit in late August.

And yet, normal seemed a long way off. Less than half the pre-storm student population showed up at Bonnabel High the first day. More than 150 state and local police officers from New Jersey helping with local relief efforts were still camped out in the school gymnasium. Also, one entire building on the campus, and sections of another, remained off-limits because of extensive storm damage.

Jefferson Parish, which a few weeks earlier was expecting just half of the district’s schools to be ready by the Oct. 3 reopening, instead managed to resume classes at all but six schools.

An uprooted tree remains in the courtyard outside Bonnabel High School in Kenner, La., while students gather during their lunch period on their first day back to school since Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast.
—Christopher Powers/Education Week

“Day one is going pretty good,” Ray Ferrand, the principal of Bonnabel High School, said on Oct. 3. “I’ve visited most of the classrooms. The kids are … kind of anxious to get back with their lives, but not quite sure how to get there.”

He added, “Some of them have lost their homes, some have lost all their clothes.”

Mr. Ferrand said that 664 students attended the school Oct, 3, down from about 1,500 before the storm. He said that, given the circumstances, he was pleased with that figure, and predicted it would climb steadily.

He noted that it wasn’t until several days before reopening that the news media began to report that his school was among those that would open, so that many families might not have gotten word.

‘Life-Altering Event’

On Oct. 3, with three schools not yet reporting, 27,122 students came to district schools, out of an estimated pre-Katrina enrollment of 49,000, said Jeff Nowakowski, a spokesman for the Jefferson Parish system. The next day the figure had risen to 28,955, not counting the three schools whose enrollment figures were still unavailable on Oct. 5. Neither figure includes preschoolers.

“Life as we know it will never be the same,” teacher Jo-Ann G. Ordoyne told students in a Monday morning history class at Bonnabel. “This is a life-altering event.”

Ms. Ordoyne’s class was meeting in a different room than usual. Her regular classroom was in a building where much of the roof had been ripped off by Hurricane Katrina, and where the heavy rains caused extensive damage.

She gave the students a chance to share some of their experiences over the past five weeks. Students evacuated to all parts of the country: Houston, Dallas, South Carolina, Alabama, New Mexico, and many more places.

“As we talked about the Great Depression in history, that was not your reference, so you didn’t know the sacrifices that that generation made,” she told students. “You didn’t realize how strong a character it took to pull together to rebuild after the Great Depression.”

She continued, “Now, it has happened to you. This is your catastrophe. And as you grow older, … you’ll talk about this for years to come, and you’ll tell people, ‘You haven’t experienced anything. I survived
Katrina.’ ”

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