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School districts aim to provide stability to displaced children

Sarah Atherton, left, and Cherie Ward of the Red Cross lead children from New Orleans to lunch at Camp Williams in Bluffdale.
Sarah Atherton, left, and Cherie Ward of the Red Cross lead children from New Orleans to lunch at Camp Williams in Bluffdale.
George Frey, Associated Press

BLUFFDALE — Meshira is eating pizza at Camp BeBe, bouncing in a bright plastic chair. "Today," she says in her little-girl drawl, "is my-y-y birthday. I'm 6." Inside a plastic bag pinned to her shirt is $15 in small bills, gifts from people who have little themselves.

The Camp BeBe day-care center takes up two rooms in a cavernous building at the National Guard training center here, which these days doubles as a shelter for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

More than 300,000 school-age children have fled the Gulf Coast — their homes, schools and day-care centers flooded or flattened nearly three weeks ago.

And school districts in cities across the country are struggling to figure out what to do with Katrina's young evacuees, how to bring some semblance of normality back to their lives and keep them learning while their families search for permanent housing or wait to find out whether they can go home.

The order of the day, and it is a tall order, is to bring consistency to these children, many of whom have experienced multiple horrors.

First there was the killer storm and flooding. Then came days spent in the lawlessness of the New Orleans Superdome and convention center, where sexual assaults and murders were reported and where the old and infirm died in plain view. Finally there is the dislocation from lifelong neighborhoods and the twinned comforts of routine and extended family.

"These children need stability," said Sue Ann Payne, an administrator called out of retirement to reopen Douglass Elementary — a school ringed with razor wire east of downtown Houston — for an estimated 750 children who were evacuated to the Astrodome. "They're glad to be in school. They need to get their lives back together."

More than 3,000 students who fled Katrina have enrolled in Houston schools; more than 10,000 are being absorbed throughout Texas. But before they can start learning, the students need to feel safe, officials say. And that may take a while.

"We've had little girls tell us they like it here because they are no longer afraid of being raped," Payne said.

Cecil J. Picard, the Louisiana superintendent of education, figures the hurricane has displaced 186,000 students. About 20,000 of those have enrolled in other schools in Louisiana; the rest are believed to have scattered to every state but Hawaii. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 125,000 Mississippi children are out of school.

Texas has borne the brunt of the educational load.

The Jordan School District, Utah's largest, has set up an education center for about two dozen children at Camp Williams. To keep from running afoul of federal law, they don't call it an official school. It is augmented by state-sponsored Camp BeBe, which provides child care to those as young as seven months and activities for older children when the education center closes each day at noon.

Living through an event like Katrina "is something terrible developmentally," said Dr. Victor Carrion, a child psychiatrist at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University and director of the Stanford early life stress research program.

While children respond to trauma differently, "school is a very good thing" for all of them, he said. "As soon as possible, you want to make sure you establish some kind of routine."

Douglass Elementary, a two-story cinderblock school, closed in May because of declining enrollment. Its main goal now is to provide the displaced children, who range from kindergarteners to fifth-graders, with something approximating a normal day.

The school marquee proclaims, "Welcome Little Angels To Your Land of Learning." A bulletin board in the hallway says "Louisiana Proud" and soon will display the students' photos. Forty teachers have been hired at Douglass, including eight from New Orleans who also fled their homes. Counselors and nurses are at the ready.

"These children look wonderful today in their new clothes and pigtails, but they're very needy, and we're going to be there for them," Payne said. Since the school opened on Sept. 9, she said, there has been some "acting out" from frightened and angry children — and quite a few stomach aches.

Last week, before the Astrodome was emptied of evacuees, buses from the Houston Independent School District arrived shortly after 8 a.m. School employees and shelter volunteers created a path to the buses, lined on either side by yellow cord.

Students held onto a third rope as they marched to the big, bright vehicles. Many carried new backpacks and wore new shoes, which were purchased by their parents with debit cards distributed by the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Come back and tell me something you've learned," a volunteer called out.

"I want to go to school, but I'm a little scared," said Hartinique Perdue, 5, hugging a stuffed bear. Said Reginald Keys, 10: "I thought maybe I'd never go back to school again."

Some of the young children left behind at the Astrodome sobbed as their sisters and brothers boarded the buses. "It's OK, baby, he's coming back this afternoon," Kawanee Martin, 32, told her inconsolable 3-year-old, Mecciah, as his brother Jermaine, 8, left for school.

"After the Superdome, he thinks every time somebody leaves, he'll never see them again," Martin said over Mecciah's tears.

As an icebreaker on the first day of school, second-grade teacher Judy Yeager read her class a story about a polar bear named Albert le Blanc. The students then were asked to describe and draw the bear. "At first they seemed very sad, but once we got to read, they perked up and started to draw," said Yeager. "What these children need is a little bit of attention and love."

But in Ammer Smith's classroom, with cursive letters pinned above the chalkboard, the need seemed a little greater. The fourth-grade teacher assigned an essay to all of her new charges, asking them to answer what on its face was a simple question: Why do I like Houston?

The responses were anything but simple. "I like Houston because people are friendly and there are guards at the bathrooms at the Astrodome at night," said Dwayne, 9, on his first day of class after fleeing New Orleans. "Not like at the Superdome."

A dozen small heads nodded in somber agreement.

Under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act, homeless children are not allowed to be segregated in schools and must be educated at their last permanent school or the campus closest to their current home. The Houston district was able to open up Douglass specifically for the children of Katrina because the closest elementary school to the Astrodome shelter could not accommodate all of the evacuees.

At the Jordan School District, south of Salt Lake City, the children have spent half-days in small groups, divided by age, focusing on math and literacy, physical education and art. Counselors have been on hand every day, and former Utah Jazz basketball star Karl Malone showed up to hang out with the children.

Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said Texas school districts "should get awards for their heroic efforts." But she is critical of Utah's response.

Here, Katrina's victims are "just flat out not in any regular school," she said. By attending activities at Camp Williams instead of being absorbed into the district, the young evacuees "will start school late. They could have been enrolled and attending school throughout the entire period of their dislocation."

But Colton defended the state's provisions as a way to give traumatized children activities they need while complying with federal law. The children, she said, were responding well to the certified teachers and counselors at Camp Williams.

"The one thing that our counselors keep saying is that structured time is so important," Colton said. "The kids, along with their parents, are establishing a new life. They are redefining what normal in their life is."

For the younger children like Meshira, "normal" is Camp BeBe, which rings with the controlled chaos of everyday preschools and child-care centers but is punctuated with a sadness all its own.

In Room A, where the diaper set plays, nap time is at 9 a.m., the moment the door opens to the cheerful little room with its new, oatmeal-colored carpet and posters of Clifford the Big Red Dog. The reason: Busy family dormitories are hard places to sleep.

"Look at this baby," said Jolene Holbrook, who works for the state's child care resource and referral agency, as she cradled sleeping Aalyiah in her arms. "This one's been trying to sleep all day. It's so noisy in the dorms."

Aalyiah is seven months old and teething. She wears shiny white shoes with Velcro tabs and a brand-new denim jumper. Her brother Charles, 2, toddles up as the sleeping child wakens and bends to kiss her. They are part of a half-dozen or so Room A regulars, there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as their parents look for housing and jobs or just to get some respite.

"I go to lay her down, and she just grabs for me," Holbrook says of Aalyiah. "So I don't lay her down. . . . The ones in (normal) separation anxiety stage are having problems. That's about nine months to a year. And then they get stranger anxiety. What a special time to be homeless."

Across the hall in Room B, the older children of Camp BeBe play. And cry. And paint. And cry. And have lunch. And, on this day, cry a little more than usual. A cold, strong storm hit northern Utah last week with hard rain and noisy hail. For many of the children, it was the first bad weather since the hurricane that forced them from their homes.

Terrell, 5, saw the rain and started crying, said Haley Hansen, a substitute teacher from the Head Start program.

"He's all, 'I hate the rain. Make it go away,' " Hansen said. "Poor kid. It made me cry."

Note: La Ganga reported from Bluffdale and Perry from Houston. Times staff writers Roy Rivenburg and Joel Rubin in Los Angeles and Ashley Powers in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this report.