At school for storm evacuees, hugs before homework

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Jacqueline MacDonald got the news on a Saturday: She was to be principal of a new Baton Rouge school composed entirely of teachers and students evacuated from New Orleans.

By Monday, Mayfair Elementary had opened its doors: a virtually empty former school building with a few desks and chairs. And on Tuesday, the first 43 students showed up for classes.

Two weeks later, things at Mayfair are still a bit disorderly - there are only two computers, and the makeshift offices are filled with constantly arriving boxes of materials - but the school has become a bustling center of learning for nearly 200 children who need stability.

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Kindergarteners trace outlines of their hands and cut them out to make a chain, while first graders eagerly join in a daily recital of their 5s, 10s, vowels, and consonants.

"Our motto is to learn, laugh, and love again, and I think that's what's happening in my school," says Ms. MacDonald, a powerhouse of energy and warmth who is the school's emotional center.

Mayfair is one of two schools for Katrina evacuees in the East Baton Rouge Parish District, and part of a growing legion of efforts in Baton Rouge and around the country to help one subgroup of Katrina evacuees: children. Projects focus on everything from reopening schools and day care centers to creating "safe play areas" in shelters, organizing counseling, and fielding donations of books, lesson plans, and educational materials.

For children still living in shelters, or dealing with the loss of their home, dispersal of their friends, and the destruction of their school, finding routine is key.

"Normal is the goal. Or as normal as we can get in these abnormal circumstances," says Thomas Tauras, an international programs officer with Save the Children, which is conducting its first emergency response within the US. Children affected by Katrina have similar needs to children in Aceh or Darfur, says Mr. Tauras: security, stability, places to learn and play, and counseling programs.

Save the Children is offering training, funding, and expertise to local children's groups in Louisiana and Mississippi. In Baton Rouge, the group helped get Mayfair and Scotlandville Elementary, another new school for evacuees, up and running.

Handing out books -- and bear hugs

While most of Scotlandville's students come from the large River Center shelter, Mayfair's tend to be living with relatives or friends, or holed up in hotels, says MacDonald, a former principal who was three weeks into teaching a fifth-grade class when she got the call to head Mayfair. The scattered geography and daily growing roster makes transportation and communication with parents a challenge. But MacDonald says within a few days she felt the school had passed the threshold into teaching, rather than just keeping kids busy.

"Homework is not a top priority; books are," she says. When one kindergartener can't stop crying, MacDonald gives him a bear hug. "When they come to us kicking and screaming, I just hold them," she explains. "That's what they need."

She and others at the school say it helps that both the children and teachers all hail from New Orleans. Instead of being outsiders, they are bonded by experience.

"I feel a bond with the staff already," says Deborah Quinn, a third-grade teacher who lost both her home and her school in Empire, a fishing village southeast of New Orleans. "These kids need a stable environment, and this school offers that. Kids are resilient."

Over in the first grade classroom, Khloé Jackson says she's having a great time in school so far. "The fun part is we have no booksacks, and we have a nice teacher," says the cheerful, chatty girl, before listing what her family left behind in New Orleans: "I lost my toys, my daddy lost his Bibles and his cane - he was a preacher - and they lost their car. My daddy says there's this green stuff that grows [on the house] every day."

Casey Gorum, a third-grader from New Orleans East just registering for her first day, says what she misses most are her friends, now scattered across the country.

"It's all she's been talking about," says her mother, Michelle Gorum, a nursing assistant now living with extended family in Baton Rouge. "It's been sleepless nights just trying to get them back in school."

Still, Casey is keeping upbeat - "I'm glad I'm traveling around!" - and a few minutes later, she's chatting happily with other girls in Ms. Quinn's classroom.

While Mayfair and Scotlandville are made up entirely of former New Orleans residents, far larger numbers of the estimated 372,000 K-12 students displaced by Katrina have simply been absorbed by schools around the country, often straining district resources.

Remnants of learning

In the hard-hit sections of the Mississippi coastline, meanwhile, the challenge is restarting damaged schools for the many students who remain in the area.

At North Bay Elementary School in Bay St. Louis, all that remains is a shell. An entire south wall was ripped off, and water flooded past the roof when the storm surge hit. Sodden books, desks, and computers are scattered amid the few remnants of learning: a plastic globe that still hangs from the ceiling, and a bulletin board with posters of the alphabet, shapes, and a calendar.

The school was one of six in the Bay St. Louis-Waveland district. Two were destroyed completely, two were badly damaged but retain their structural integrity, and two were flooded but should soon be usable.

For the area's youngest students, Save the Children and other local groups are working to get day cares operating again.

"Kids were living in tent cities, playing in rubble, playing in contaminated mud," says Gloria Necaise, a Harrison County worker for Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, an antitobacco group that's helping hurricane victims. Her group helped restart Tiny Tots, a day care in nearby Pass Christian, which has reopened with double the number of children, and is working to get others back in operation.

Toddlers at Tiny Tots play happily with Legos. They talk about birthdays, loose teeth, and airplanes, and only occasionally speak of the storm.

"It went like this," says three-year-old Landon Dedeaux, miming a tree falling. "And then we saw that tree fall. It was a very big tree."

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