Lots of hugs and stories were shared last week in the Archdiocese of New Orleans as students returned to class in 37 Roman Catholic schools that opened for the first time since Hurricane Katrina blasted the region six weeks ago.
School officials were surprised to see families returning much sooner and in greater numbers than expected.
With the reopening of six high schools and 30 elementary schools in Jefferson Parish and one elementary school in Orleans Parish, the number of students returning to archdiocesan schools climbed to about 30,000. That’s more than half of the nearly 50,000 students who were enrolled in 108 archdiocesan schools before the hurricane.
“It was important for us to get the school system up and going as soon as possible,” said the Rev. William Maestri, the superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. “They had to come back to a system.”
Meanwhile, all but six schools in the Jefferson Parish public school system also reopened last week. Of the district’s 49,000 students before the Aug. 29 hurricane, some 27,000 attended classes.
About 15,000 Catholic school students returned to their home schools during the last two weeks of September after the archdiocese reopened several schools in communities north and west of Lake Pontchartrain, whose waters burst through levees during the hurricane and flooded New Orleans.
Father Maestri took another step toward rebuilding the school system by relocating the headquarters for the archdiocesan schools back inside the Archdiocese of New Orleans. He had been in the Diocese of Baton Rouge. The New Orleans Catholic schools office opened last week at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie.
“You have to approach this process with the mind of the military,” Father Maestri said. “This is a campaign.”
Concern About Housing
Father Maestri, a tall, thin man with a commanding presence, spelled out the remaining challenges for getting the rest of the system up and running.
“One of the issues looming larger and larger is housing,” he said. “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 have been decimated.”
He said it will take at least until January to repair and open most of the system’s schools in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, but he’s trying his best to open some of them sooner.
He is also concerned about drawing African-American students back into the Catholic school system. Before the hurricane, black students in archdiocesan schools were heavily concentrated in Orleans Parish, which is New Orleans. In fact, almost all of the 13,000 students attending Catholic elementary schools in Orleans Parish were black, he said.
He believes many of those students are staying in Houston, Baton Rouge, and elsewhere in Louisiana.
About 200 African-American students displaced by Hurricane Katrina have enrolled in Catholic schools in Baton Rouge, estimated Sister Mary Michaeline, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, which had 16,000 students before the hurricane.
Many of the students who recently returned to Catholic schools in the greater New Orleans area had not been in school since the hurricane, while others who had relocated to new schools were coming home.
The number of displaced students enrolled in the Diocese of Baton Rouge, for instance, declined from a peak of 4,000 students two weeks ago to 3,225 students as of Oct. 4, said Sister Michaeline.
“No one dreamed that the recovery would be this quick,” she said. “We were prepared for the long haul.”
Archbishop Rummel High School, an all-male school in Metairie, saw all but 100 of its 1,300 students in grades 8-12 return Oct. 3 for the first day back to school since the hurricane.
On the same day, Archbishop Chapelle High School, also in Metairie, reopened with only about 50 of its original 1,100 students missing.
In addition to reopening its doors to former students, Archbishop Rummel High School started a coeducational afternoon shift last week for about 1,300 students who remain displaced from other Catholic schools in the archdiocese. Archbishop Chapelle will also run an afternoon shift beginning on Oct. 13.
The rate of return by Catholic school students to their home schools has also been high in Slidell, a bedroom community on the northeast corner of Lake Pontchartrain, where many homes and businesses were destroyed by a surge of water from the lake during the hurricane. The south side of town is now littered with piles of debris the size of houses, and many businesses are still closed.
Those businesses that have reopened advertise with bright banners or bold lettering on makeshift plywood signs.
Our Lady of Lourdes School, on the south side of Slidell, closed due to flood damage. Students from that school are now sharing the campus—and textbooks—of St. Margaret Mary School on the north side of town. St. Margaret Mary had 11 classrooms, including its computer lab, ruined by the hurricane, but is otherwise intact. Those classrooms remained closed when the school reopened Sept. 19.
St. Margaret Mary School is missing about 50 of the 664 students in pre-K-8th grades it enrolled before the hurricane. With displaced students, the school’s enrollment is now at 710.
“We expected about one-half of the students to return—we now have about 80 percent,” said Robert V. Kiefer Jr., the principal of Our Lady of Lourdes, who directs the afternoon shift at St. Margaret Mary. That shift, which runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., started on Sept. 22 and has 592 students, including about 100 students displaced from other Catholic schools.
“Parents have done what they could to get back—staying with family, in trailers, and even in cars for a time,” added Steve Nichols, the assistant principal of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Despite the high turnout for the reopenings last week, students, parents, and educators said that Katrina’s aftermath is still being felt.
In Slidell, many students are staying in other people’s homes or have relatives or friends living with them. Some parents have lost jobs. School administrators are dealing with red tape as they seek funds for building repairs, textbooks, and other supplies. Slidell Catholic school administrators said they hadn’t received funds from the federal government or the archdiocesan insurance provider to fix their buildings.
Mr. Nichols said Our Lady of Lourdes paid for a contractor to start cleaning the school soon after the hurricane. The buildings are structurally sound, but everything inside is ruined, he said. The renovations are on hold until the school can obtain outside funds.
A number of students and teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes said their circumstances still seem strange. At the copy machine, teachers share advice on getting damage estimates on homes and renting chain saws to remove downed trees.
In one of the 8th grade classes, three boys, whose homes in Orleans and St. Bernard parishes were destroyed by the hurricane, now hang out together.
One of them, 13-year-old Benjamin Condon, seems to relish recounting how he and his family stuck out the hurricane in New Orleans in a room at the hospital where his mother worked.
He said the hurricane sounded like a train.
“We stayed during every hurricane, but this one got out of hand,” he said. Benjamin and his family were taken by helicopter from the hospital and dropped off on a highway. Several hours later, they boarded a bus headed to Texas, and later stayed with a friend in Lafayette, La., before moving to Slidell.
Kyle Shuff, 13, who previously lived in Meraux, La., and attended Holy Cross School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, is living with his family in a recreational vehicle in Slidell. His father kept his job at a coffee plant, but his mother lost her job as an architect in Meraux.
When asked what would make life seem normal again, Kyle said it would seem normal if he could “go back home.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as Catholic Schools Reopening After Katrina