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Houston Schools Welcome Students Evacuated from the U.S.Gulf Coast

  • Capella Tucker

Houston schools are now educating hundreds of children who were evacuated with their families from areas along America's Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina. While many families still have no idea how long they'll be living in Houston, getting their children back in school is the first step to getting their lives back together.

Houston School officials were expecting several thousand new students. Teryyanna Durel, 9, is one of them. Despite the difficulties she's had to face from the storm and her family's evacuation, her optimism shines through. "I'm just happy I'm going to school so I can learn," she says, "that's what I'm happy for." She says she's looking forward to meeting her teacher. "I'm going to tell her I'm from New Orleans and I need to be treated nicely. I already know they are going to treat me nicely, that's what they are going to do."

Teryyanna, her parents and her brother and sister spent nearly two days in their home's attic before breaking through the roof and being rescued by boat. Her father, Anthony Durel, hopes being back in school will get his children's minds off what they've been through. "It'll give them something to look forward to, being in a new location with a lot of people giving a lot of love. I appreciate this from the bottom of my heart," he says.

For families with teenagers, like the Mitchells, the adjustment is proving more difficult. "I'm not ready to go to school right now," says Christopher, 16, who admits he's anxious. "I miss my old school. I'm going to take some time to fit in with the people and everything."

The families who are enrolling their children are planning to stay in Houston for the indefinite future. The parents say they'll look for jobs and other housing arrangements while their kids are in class. Other families who are still deciding whether to stay or move on are not yet enrolling their children.

The Houston Independent School District has re-opened two elementary schools that were closed last spring because of declining enrollment. HISD spokesperson Adriana Villarreal says those two buildings will hold 1,300 students. "It'll be exactly like every one of our 305 schools with all of the same programs. We'll even have uniforms like we do at many of our schools so they don't have to worry about clothing. We'll provide all of that for them."

Houston Astrodome sports arena and the city's convention center, which have doubled as emergency shelters for thousands of Katrina evacuees, have also become the main school registration sites for evacuee children.

But thousands of other evacuees are staying with friends and relatives throughout the city. Those families are registering their children at neighborhood schools. At the Briar Meadow Charter School on Houston's west side, the staff greets evacuee families as they arrive to enroll their children. In a typical exchange, a teacher explains to a parent, "We can keep the first grader here and then there is a brand new pre-K [Kindergarten] center that's opened up that's just a few miles from here." In the first week following Hurricane Katrina, Briar Meadow took in 21 out-of-state students and referred many others to nearby schools.

Tameka Jackson and her sister, with their four children, left New Orleans hours before Katrina made landfall. Ms. Jackson says they originally tried to relocate in Baton Rouge and enroll the kids in school there. "(It was) so small, the (neighborhood) we were in was Baker and the population doubled and tripled there, so the schools were not accepting anyone else," she explains. "It was chaos, you can't get no assistance there. The assistance program was just overwhelmed."

So the sisters moved on to Houston. Ms. Jackson says placing the children in school will give the grown-ups time get a plan together for finding jobs and a better place to live. "The kids have been out of school so long and we can't function of trying to get ourselves together and traveling because we have to take the children everywhere we go not knowing anybody."

The school district has been doing a lot of hiring ... including some displaced teachers from the New Orleans area. Helen Franklan had taught in Jefferson Parish for the past 23 years. Today, she made her way over to Houston's school administration building to apply for a job. "I would love to go back," she says of her old job, "but there's nothing to go back to. The Jefferson Parish Public school system has stated that we need to find employment elsewhere so that is what I'm doing at this current time."

Public school officials say the flood of new students could increase the city's enrollment by about 3%.

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