HOUSTON — On their first day in class after the Labor Day weekend, second-graders of Briarmeadow Charter School were excitedly playing “Subtraction Wars” with toy blocks in their math class.
Not Jameall Gatlin. The 8-year-old boy had a donated new blue polo shirt, new khaki shorts, new Nike sneakers. But he was quiet and shy, understandably so: He's a long way from his home in devastated New Orleans.
“It's very different,” he mumbled, shoving his hands in his pockets, when asked what he thought of his new school.
Here, as in towns and cities around the country that have taken in Hurricane Katrina's dispossessed, refugee students are getting a tough crash course in adjustment.
Katrina forced an unprecedented displacement of students from the Gulf Coast, just as schools across America are starting the academic year. From Maine to California, districts have begun hastily enrolling these students, even embracing them — with a smile, a hug or a welcome sign drawn in art class.
A strain on schools
The influx is putting a logistical and financial strain on schools at a time when many are grappling with budget and program cuts, soaring gas prices, and the pressure of satisfying the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires yearly progress in math and reading among all students.
Classroom space, textbooks, transportation and teachers for new students — how much it will cost? No one can say. Still, says Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, “I think districts will keep taking the students and figure it all out later.”
Even before Katrina, Texas, which has absorbed nearly a quarter-million refugees, was already having problems funding its growing, public school system. In 2003, about 300 school districts sued the state, claiming that not enough money was going to schools.
This year, in response to the lawsuit, Gov. Rich Perry convened three emergency sessions of the Texas legislature to resolve the money problem. Still, lawmakers failed to come up with a new plan.
Regardless of such challenges, schools are welcoming displaced kids.
By Tuesday afternoon, the Houston Independent School District had taken in 889 students, a number expected to grow by 5,000 or more in the coming days, said spokesman Terry Abbott. The district is hiring retired teachers and certified instructors from Louisiana, and getting breaks on textbooks from publishers, he said.
Teachers and administrators are also trying to make “Katrina kids” and their parents feel at home.
“The first thing we do is give them a hug and say, ‘How can we help you?’” says Lynn Barnes, the principal at Briarmeadow, which had enrolled at least 22 refugee students. When Briarmeadow runs out of room, “we will contact other schools.”
River Oaks Elementary has been preparing since last week for the flood of Katrina evacuees. One art class got a special assignment: to make a poster that read, “Welcome, Louisiana children.”
Some New Orleans students were resettling in Louisiana itself. Schools sent employees to shelters and churches in Baton Rouge to give beleaguered parents tips on where to find school supplies, clothes, food and donated, day-to-day spending money.
The Bernard Terrace Elementary School signed up two dozen refugee students for classes on Tuesday, and Principal Deborah Daniels said the school, now with 480 students, would “take however many they want me to.”
The uprooted students miss their homes, their friends — their stuff. “They say they want to go back and get this and that,” said Trellis Royal, as she waited to register her 10- and 14-year-old daughters at a Baton Rouge school.
But many seem antsy to end their forced break from school — even if starting over miles and miles from home in Michigan, Arkansas and Georgia.
“I'm not nervous at all. I'm ready to get back,” said fifth-grader Layanda Grinstead, who was playing badminton with her sister, Leslea, at a Red Cross shelter in Atlanta.
Relief for parents as kids go back to school
If kids were eager to hit the books, parents also looked forward to the stabilizing routine of classes.
“I'm so ready for them to go to school,” said the Grinstead girls' mother, Latanya.
In Michigan, Tyrienisha Smith, 10, whose school in New Orleans is underwater, registered for school Tuesday at the Best Western Sterling Inn, a Detroit-area hotel that took them in when they arrived last week.
She had all the proper gear: new SpongeBob Squarepants backpack, folders, loose-leaf paper, two boxes of crayons, colored pencils, a purple ruler, glue and scissors. And she was anxious to use it.
“I'm excited for going back to school, for writing, language, reading, math, science, social studies and recess.”
Relaxing the No Child Left Behind law?
In Washington, President Bush announced that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is working on a plan to help the states pay their bills. The Education Department also will consider state requests for relaxed enforcement of the No Child Left Behind law.
As schools in the stricken area struggle to assess losses, Mississippi state Senate education chairman Mike Chaney provided a glimpse of the challenge, quoting one superintendent in a conference call: "'I don't know what we're going to do. We're going to educate these children. But we still have bodies in the ditch behind my house.'"
Paige DiMacco of River Ridge, La., would have preferred to finish her senior year at Ridgewood School in suburban New Orleans, where she was class president. Instead, she'll wind up high school in Arkansas, at Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.
“I'm pretty open, so that will make it better, and we've already met a lot of nice people,” she said moments after a group of Mount St. Mary seniors encouraged her to join the student council.
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