Video: Back to school without mom and dad

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/12/2006 7:23:03 PM ET 2006-12-13T00:23:03

The start of class at John McDonough High School is signaled, not with a bell or a buzzer, but with school guards barking commands.

"Put your shirt in your pants!" one guard tells a student.

School security must scold teens about how they dress, because their parents cannot. Incredibly, of the 775 kids enrolled at John Mac, an estimated 20 percent are living on their own. That's because parents evacuated to Houston or Atlanta have chosen to send their kids back to John Mac until they can find housing or a job here in New Orleans.

First-year Principal Donald Jackson says the kids are raising themselves.

"You can't imagine not coming home to a hot meal or someone who just asks you simple questions about your day," he says.

Sixteen-year-old Justin Harrell had to grow up fast. He had to be the man of the house for several months until his mother could return.

"I wanted them to have some sort of normalcy, and home was normalcy," says Rachelle Harrell.

Other kids have not adjusted as well to living on their own. Their anger at being alone boils over. Not just cutting class and talking back, but more violently. A teacher and a guard were assaulted inside the school this year.

Now, community leaders routinely visit to offer help. Even entertainer Bill Cosby recently lectured the kids on personal responsibility.

The help is welcomed by teacher Wilfred Wright.

"If we don't come back, those of us who are in place right now in the classrooms to educate our children, who will?" he asks.

People like Principal Jackson. He had a job in a rich Houston school district. He gave it up to be here, to let these kids know that until their parents come home, someone will be watching out for them.

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