‘The Hurricane Messed a Lot of Us Up’
Settling back in to school has been a struggle for thousands of New Orleans students whose lives were disrupted by Katrina.
There had been so much upheaval in Giovanna Batiste’s life after Hurricane Katrina. Evacuation. Separation from family. Her mother without a job. A drowned home, pushed off its foundation. Her school shuttered indefinitely. And deep uncertainty about whether she would ever come home to New Orleans.
But Giovanna, 16, found something unexpected amid all that disruption: a high school that was, in her words, orderly. “It was easier for me to learn there,” she said.
Now, after more than two years of living and going to school in Houston, Giovanna and her mother have come home to this city’s Lower Ninth Ward and are living, temporarily, in her grandmother’s rebuilt house. Since October, Giovanna, a junior, has been attending Frederick Douglass High School, where, almost daily, at least one of her classes is halted by misbehaving students.
“People come in late, or they talk over the teacher and you can’t hear the lesson,” she said in early December. “Or they clown around so much that everyone just goes crazy and the teacher can’t teach.
“I think I should have stayed at my school in Houston,” she added. “It’s like kids here don’t know how to be in school anymore, how to act. The hurricane messed a lot of us up.”
Across New Orleans’ still-emerging patchwork of regular public schools and charter schools, the emotional, social, and academic damage that the August 2005 hurricane inflicted on the city’s children plays out daily, in disruptions to instruction, in schoolyard fights, and in classrooms half-empty because of chronic absenteeism.
Over a three-month period this past fall, school-based social workers referred more than 600 students to psychiatrists and other mental-health providers—a result of rising numbers of young people who are depressed, hopeless, angry, and suicidal, said Debra Morton, the behavioral-health-services coordinator for the 12,344-student Recovery School District.
At O. Perry Walker Senior High School, a charter school on New Orleans’ West Bank, Principal Mary Laurie has assigned “behavior interventionists” to every grade level to handle a range of challenges brought on by the hurricane, including a freshman class with 25 17-year-old boys, nearly all of whom had been out of school since the storm until this past fall.
“Katrina took a lot from our kids, when many of them didn’t have a lot to begin with,” said Mike Ricks, the behavior interventionist for the freshman class at O. Perry Walker. “They are sicker, they’ve lost family members, and many of them have to fend for themselves.”
Before the storm, which triggered devastating flooding and a mass displacement of residents, most of New Orleans’ public school students came from poor families and many of them lagged academically—disadvantages that have been magnified by the hurricane and its aftereffects.
In an ongoing study that is tracking more than 1,200 Gulf Coast families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, researchers found that 37 percent of Louisiana parents and caregivers surveyed in 2007 reported that their child or children had suffered a range of mental-health problems since the storm, including clinically diagnosed depression, anxiety, and behavior disorders. More than 25 percent of them said that their child or children no longer had medical insurance or had lost access to a doctor. And 25 percent also reported that their children had experienced a dramatic drop in academic achievement since the hurricane.
The study, done by researchers at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, which is based at Columbia University, and the Children’s Health Fund, a national organization that provides health care and mental-health services to children and their families in several disadvantaged communities, estimates that from 46,000 to 65,000 Gulf Coast children are struggling with mental-health issues and other problems related to Katrina.
The individual stories from students that educators encounter every day are even more striking.
At the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology, language arts teacher Yvonne Lancelin has a 13-year-old student who won’t eat lunch in the cafeteria. When she talked to the girl, Ms. Lancelin learned that the student had stood in line for months for every meal while she lived in a shelter with her family after the storm. “She couldn’t bear to do that anymore,” Ms. Lancelin said.
"We are limited on teachers, we are limited on space, we are limited on a lot of stuff, and they're not." Janay Barconey, a student at a school run by the Orleans Parish school board, talks about the difference between conditions at her school compared to charter schools in the district.
Mr. Ricks—or “Big Mike,” as he is affectionately called by students and teachers at O. Perry Walker—has become a sort of surrogate parent for dozens of teenagers who have come back to New Orleans without their parents or other adults to supervise them.
“I wash their clothes for them if they need me to,” he said. “We’re talking about a number of kids who are sleeping at their friends’ houses, who themselves are living in temporary situations.”
Such cases are not unusual since the hurricane, said Ms. Morton, who oversees the social work specialists who are based in all 34 Recovery School District schools.
“We believe it’s a significant number of kids living like this, but it’s difficult to quantify” because people’s living situations are so fluid, Ms. Morton said. Though it wasn’t unusual for children not to be living with a parent before the storm, most were likely living with some other adult family member. That’s often not the case since Katrina.
Principal Doris R. Hicks talks about the importance of creating a positive learning environment for her students in this post-Katrina landscape.
“The big, extended family networks that were a main characteristic of this area are no longer here, and people are really struggling to try and re-create that,” Ms. Morton said.
And, she noted, the physical conditions of the city, where large swaths of neighborhoods remain abandoned or largely untouched since the storm, make it even harder for children to focus on school and learning.
“It’s across the street from you in an empty house; it’s next door where the FEMA trailer sits, and as long as it is in your face like that, it’s very hard to put it behind you,” Ms. Morton said of Katrina’s continuing impact.
Even for students who have returned home with their parents, living situations often remain tenuous.
Janay Barconey, 17, a senior at Eleanor McMain Secondary School, has lived in three different places across New Orleans since she and her family were among the first wave of people to return in early 2006. Her pre-Katrina home, a rental house in the Lower Ninth Ward, was wrecked, along with everything inside it. Since coming home, the family has been living in the Uptown neighborhood, where storm damage was modest.
“The rents are so high now that we’ve had to move a few times,” said Janay. “And we may have to move again.”
Moving around hasn’t been that hard on her, she insists. She worries more about the changes at McMain, a selective-admissions campus that is one of the five city schools that are still directly run by the Orleans Parish school board.
“It’s not like we came back to find exactly what was here before the storm; … a lot of the teachers we had before are gone,” said Janay, who first came to McMain in the 9th grade. “And they couldn’t keep science teachers. I had three different ones last year, so I ended up having to learn most of it on my own and from the textbook.”
She got a B in the chemistry class, but wonders if the turnover in science teachers left gaps in her knowledge. Might it harm her chance of being admitted to a school of engineering? And especially her shot at getting into her dream school, Duke University?
“No matter how smart you are, it’s not easy to learn chemistry when the teachers keep changing,” she said.
With all the tumult, some schools here are trying to provide a sense of security and stability, as well as social services that have yet to recover fully in the city. The Recovery School District has a full-time social worker in each of its 34 schools, and has assigned interns from several local colleges and universities to work part time at some campuses.
“Our resources in the city are very thin, so we are trying to fill the gap as best we can,” Ms. Morton said.
At the 900-student O. Perry Walker campus, Ms. Laurie, the principal, keeps the building open as late as 10 o’clock on some weeknights. And the school is providing three evening buses, one at 4 p.m., one at 6 p.m., and one at 7 p.m. Rising violent-crime rates have plagued New Orleans since the storm and have directly affected many high schools, including Walker, which saw three of its students killed by gunfire in the past seven months, Ms. Laurie said.
“We all find ourselves staying here late most days, because many of these children don’t have anywhere else to be, or anywhere else where they feel safe,” said Ms. Laurie. “Before Katrina, there was little for our kids to do, but now, it’s almost nonexistent.”
Ms. Laurie also oversaw in October the opening of a student health-care clinic at Walker that is run by the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. The clinic, which will ultimately serve the surrounding Algiers community, has a full-time nurse practitioner, social worker, and registered nurse, as well as a part-time pediatrician and psychiatrist.
“The primary-care needs of these kids are just immense,” said Elizabeth Perrilloux, the clinic’s nurse practitioner. “Very few of them have been to the doctor since before Katrina.”
Of all the pressing needs among New Orleans’ students, academic woes are probably the most widespread, educators say.
At Frederick Douglass High, Jim Randels taught Advanced Placement English courses before the hurricane. He doesn’t anymore. Now, he and Kalamu ya Salaam co-teach two creative-writing courses at the high school in the Upper Ninth Ward. In the mornings, they teach three English courses—two of them AP—at McMain High.
“We don’t really know why that’s the case,” Mr. Randels said. “The Recovery School District says it is offering a better education for students now than the old system did before the storm, but right now, there is no Advanced Placement program at Douglass.”
This school year, none of the RSD high schools are offering Advanced Placement courses, though students who request AP courses can take them through the online Louisiana Virtual School, said Debbie Schum, the deputy superintendent of academics for the recovery district. Next fall, she said, all the high schools will offer some AP courses.
“Most of the kids are trying to catch up on courses that they missed after the storm and don’t have any room in their schedules to add additional courses,” Ms. Schum said.
To Thomas Moore, a 17-year-old senior at McMain, some teachers he sees at an elementary school where he tutors for three hours every week don’t seem cut out to help students catch up academically, much less advance.
“How can a 1st grader learn to read when he’s being shown the Power Rangers during class time?” said Thomas. “It might be the best way for that teacher to keep the kids quiet, but they aren’t learning anything. It’s baby-sitting.”
After three months at Douglass, Giovanna Batiste says she has adjusted, but still longs for the order of her Houston high school.
If it’s an option, she may switch high schools for her senior year. When she returned to New Orleans in October, Douglass—the closest comprehensive high school to her home in the Lower Ninth Ward—was the only option offered to her, she said. She wishes she could go to McMain, but doubts her grades are good enough to win admission.
“It seems like there are more rules there, and that it would be easier to focus on learning and not all the clowning,” she said.
“Really, I just want it to all be over, so I can move on and get out of New Orleans for good,” she said. “I don’t want to hold on to this place anymore.”
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