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Published in Print: January 11, 2006, as Venturing Back Home

Venturing Back Home

After four months in Virginia, a New Orleans family is returning to an uncertain future.

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Nearly four months after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to their hometown, Jonathan and Shelley Midura are packing up the family’s van and heading back from this Washington suburb to New Orleans. They just have to figure out where their three children will go to school.

Before the storm hit, this upper-middle-class family had enrolled the children in two different schools. Eleven-year-old Redding had started 6th grade at the private Isidore Newman School. Justis, 9, and Sophie, 5, attended the International School of Louisiana, a charter public school offering immersion programs in French and Spanish.

Though Katrina shut down both schools, the charter school reopened Oct. 31. The private school reopened last week.

Unfortunately for the Miduras, though, the charter school was forced to move outside New Orleans. It operates now out of a church and portable trailers in Kenner, La., a suburb west of New Orleans. By opening day, only 40 students—a tenth of its normal enrollment—had re-enrolled.

The relocation poses a problem for Shelley Midura because she cannot make the 20-minute morning drive to Kenner and back in time to deliver Redding, her oldest, to Newman. Plus, uncertainties abound: Will the 5-year-old charter school have to change its language-immersion practices to attract more students? What form will the city’s revamped public school system take in the fall?

“I’m just not willing to trust it’s going to be all OK and going well,” Midura says. “And I’m not just going to enroll my kid in some school I know nothing about.”

So, on this gray December day, Midura is on her cellphone, figuring out the cost of enrolling all three children at Newman.

Children Adjust Well

The prospect of switching schools is painful for the 40-year-old stay-at-home mom because she was one of the parents who helped found the charter school. She still supports its mission.

“You combine all this with the fact that Arlington has beautiful schools, so why go back?” she adds.

Jonathan and Shelley Midura lived in a house slated for demolition in Arlington, Va., after having to evacuate their New Orleans home along with their children, Redding, right, Justis, and Sophie.
Jonathan and Shelley Midura lived in a house slated for demolition in Arlington, Va., after having to evacuate their New Orleans home along with their children, Redding, right, Justis, and Sophie.
—Photograph by Hector Emanuel

But there are reasons to return, too. Though the family’s home withstood Katrina, much of the surrounding neighborhood didn’t. The Miduras could not sell the house now without taking a loss.

What’s more, Shelley Midura is gearing up for a possible City Council run back home, and she needs to build name recognition.

“If there aren’t clear-cut reasons to leave, if your home wasn’t completely destroyed, it’s harder to make a decision,” she says.

Indeed, Redding has thrived at Williamsburg Middle School here. He joined the biking club and the swim team. In November, he was named a student of the month.

“Up here, I like how the kids are nicer,” Redding tells a visitor. On the other hand, he notes, the Isidore Newman School has a swimming pool, “cool” activities, and a lighter homework load in every subject but mathematics.

The hardest part of the adjustment, Redding says, has been riding a school bus for the first time. He missed his stop on the ride home his first day of school.

“It was scary,” he says.

Justis and Sophie also fit easily at Jamestown Elementary School.

Shelley Midura and her daughter, Sophie, wrap homemade pralines to use as goodbye gifts before the family's return to New Orleans. Midura needs to find a new school for two of her three children because their charter school was forced by the hurricane to relocate to another community.
Shelley Midura and her daughter, Sophie, wrap homemade pralines to use as goodbye gifts before the family's return to New Orleans. Midura needs to find a new school for two of her three children because their charter school was forced by the hurricane to relocate to another community.
—Photograph by Hector Emanuel

A social worker from the Arlington County school system visited the family before classes started. The schools also assigned “buddies“ to show Redding and Justis around. And, up until the family departed last month, a counselor at Justis’ school checked on him each Friday to monitor his progress.

Aside from two peers who called the boys “Katrina kids,” classmates welcomed and befriended the displaced siblings. Among only a handful of Katrina evacuees on their campuses, the children were even minor celebrities for a while.

The family fled to Arlington because a college roommate of Shelley Midura offered them basement space close to reputable schools.

The move to northern Virginia also made sense because Jonathan Midura’s parents live in nearby Maryland, and he already had been commuting to the Washington area each week to manage computer databases for several federal agencies.

“The storm hit on a Monday. We were here by Thursday and on Friday we registered for school,” Shelley Midura recalls.

Future ‘Very Different’

When it became apparent that they wouldn’t be returning to New Orleans right after the storm, the Miduras used their $700-plus monthly allotment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to rent a house that is slated for demolition.

A volunteer group and churches lent or gave the family just enough furniture to make the empty house seem livable. The school system provided gift cards to local stores.

“The floors are tilted, so cars roll when you put them down,” says Redding of the house. The heating system doesn’t work on this day, either, but Shelley Midura isn’t complaining. She knows rents this close to Washington can be far higher.

Though the Miduras are looking forward to getting home, they aren’t sure what to expect. Their house is in good shape, but Shelley Midura’s childhood home is gone. Some friends and classmates who left the city are not yet back.

“School’s going to be very different,” Midura adds, musing, as evening darkens the bare walls. “Just like most of New Orleans is going to be very different.”

Vol. 25, Issue 18, Pages 25-27

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