Far from the French Quarter, children driven from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina are doing their schoolwork amid reminders of home.
At New Orleans West, a charter school set up for storm victims in a small, once-shuttered brick elementary school, the student uniforms are the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. The school’s symbol is a Texas Lone Star with a Louisiana fleur de lis in the middle. And the principal wants to find a Louisiana flag to fly atop the Texas flag.
More than 300 youngsters in kindergarten through eighth grade attend the school. The teachers and administrators are also Katrina victims from New Orleans. Keeping New Orleans schoolchildren together, and matching them with teachers from their hometown, are seen as a source of comfort.
“It soothes me in a real sense to know that I can connect with those students. I am from where they are from. I have lost what they have lost, likely,” said teacher Towana Pierre-Floyd, 22.
Many of the children are from the impoverished neighborhoods hit hard by Katrina. Many of their homes were flooded, and many still don’t know where some of their relatives and friends are. Their belongings are covered with mold, mildew and mud.
Like other students, 10-year-old Ceyonne Riley is using donated school supplies and backpacks.
“I don’t want to start over, but now we have to,” she said as she took a break from a culture class where students sang “Lean on Me.”
Ceyonne proudly displayed one of her few possessions — a digital watch her mother recently bought her. She knows of only one other student from her school in New Orleans who is in Houston with her. Other than that, she does not know where any of her classmates ended up, nor if they are OK.
Helping students express anxieties
The school 350 miles west of New Orleans tries to get the students to talk about Katrina and confront their anxieties, though the results are not always what teachers had in mind.
One teacher encouraged students to debate such issues as the federal government’s response to Katrina. “It got out of hand,” Principal Gary Robichaux said. “There was too much emotion. Once you opened the bottle, it all came out.”
Teachers are now using other methods, including putting pictures of the flooded city on large pieces of butcher paper and allowing students to write down the feelings evoked by the images.
“I feel bad because my home is not the same,” one student wrote about a picture of New Orleans under water.
Another wrote: “I cry some times.”
“I feel sad for all the people,” scribbled a third.
Dr. Britta Ostermeyer, a psychiatrist who directs a Harris County health program, said the school is a good idea for those planning to return to Louisiana.
“If you put the students with other students from New Orleans and their own teachers, in the short run, they are going to feel more supported and might have a better sense of belonging,” she said. “They all feel, ‘We are from New Orleans and are going to make it together.”’
But in the long run, if parents decide to stay in Houston, it would be better for the students to begin getting used to their new surroundings, she said.
The principal said many of the students plan to return to New Orleans. But in the meantime: “They feel at home here. We went through the same thing they went through.”