June 1, 2006
For Many, Education Is Another Storm Victim
By SHAILA DEWAN BAKER, La. — For hundreds of children at Renaissance Village, this is their lost year. After fleeing Hurricane Katrina, they have landed in a vast gravel moonscape of government trailers, lacking even a playground.
All day they play video games, ride bikes or sit at a picnic table, watching men play horseshoes. They are not in school.
Of the 560 children who are evacuees and were enrolled in the Baker school district in mid-September, only 190 were still attending when the school year ended on May 19.
Part of the decline occurred because some families moved, but as of April there were still more than 800 children under 18 at Renaissance Village and the other trailer parks run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Child health experts and advocates for evacuees say that Baker, on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, is not unique. Throughout the areas where hurricane evacuees ended up, they say, are pockets where education has fallen by the wayside, raising the possibility that thousands of children could become permanent dropouts.
More alarming, said Sister Judith Brun, who works with children at Renaissance Village through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, is that the problem is not limited to high school students. "I think the big reason is that school has not engaged them, not comforted and motivated them," she said. "They all had terrible stories racing around in their heads."
Since many of the parents did not graduate from high school, the children's relationship to school was already tenuous, Sister Judith said. "Any breeze is adequate to keep them out of school, any vicissitude."
On a recent Thursday at the park, children were plentiful. "I don't go to Baker Middle no more," said David Williams, an eighth grader who was hanging out under one of the two white tents that provide virtually the park's only shade. "I stopped going."
Lisa Casborn, 15, agreed. "Everybody stopped going to school," she said.
"Sometimes I get up and I look out the window for the bus," Lisa said, "and if the bus ain't out there, I go back to bed."
Parents, children and educators give a variety of reasons for the children's truancy. Most families have moved several times since the hurricane, and children grew frustrated when they could not catch up.
Some parents never enrolled their children because they thought they would be able to return home much sooner. Parents and children also cited separation anxiety and the perception that they were not welcome by their host students or teachers.
Linda W. Lewis, the principal of the Capitol Pre-College Academy for Girls, where many evacuees enrolled while they were living at the large shelter at the Baton Rouge River Center, had another explanation. "I think it's just apathy," she said.
Ms. Lewis said that some of the students from New Orleans, whose school system was notoriously poor, had trouble with the strict routine at Capitol.
In Baton Rouge and Houston, fights have occurred between New Orleans teenagers and their hosts. Dozens of New Orleans children were expelled or suspended and never went back. In Baker, children who were expelled had no alternative but private school, which their families could not afford.
"They were thrown into a big classroom without close monitoring, without the necessary mental health help that they needed, and the only thing they had left that they owned was their ego," said Tommy Cowsar, a volunteer who has been teaching children on site at Renaissance Village. "When they were pushed slightly, they pushed back."
Michael Lewis, an eighth grader who was expelled from Baker Middle School for fighting, said he had not gotten into similar trouble back in New Orleans. "You can't really hardly communicate with other people" in Baton Rouge, he said. "I don't know why they have such a grudge on us. They just do."
If it were not for the hurricane, Michael said, he would be enrolled. "I love school," he said. "There's no place I would rather be, during school hours, than school."
Mr. Cowsar said Michael had asked to join his group, whose efforts to become an official charter school have faltered. The group lost financing for the two teachers it had in the fall, and it had only a couple of volunteers to handle about 15 children ages 4 to 14. There was no room for Michael.
Michael said he had wanted to go to summer school, for which parents must pay in some districts. At any rate, he said, his mother did not have time to sign him up. "I want to stay in a child place," he said, "but life keep putting me in a man's place."
One parent, Trinest Sylve, said that two of her children liked their East Baton Rouge school but that one, her son Holden, stopped going after repeatedly getting into trouble. The school called frequently while she was at work, asking her to pick him up, she said.
Like many children, Holden did not view his absence from school as permanent. Some thought, however optimistically, that in the coming fall they would be back at the schools they left last August. Others, like Lisa and Michael, said they wanted to take summer school to make up for what they missed.
But Dr. Irwin Redlener, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the president of the Children's Health Fund, said children who disconnected from school would suffer more than just an academic setback, especially if they had untreated mental health issues. "It's almost like we're creating conditions for them that are virtually impossible to overcome," he said.
One problem, Dr. Redlener said, was that so many major questions about the future of New Orleans remained unanswered. "The kids really cannot afford to wait until all those big things are resolved before they stabilize the basics," he said.
While some children seem to have simply lost interest, others have found their enthusiasm thwarted. Chris Waller, a junior, said he was turned away by several area high schools that told him they were full. "I said, 'How can you deny a kid an education?' " he recalled. "And they said, 'Sorry.' I was stunned."
Chris's father, James Waller, a manager at a fast food restaurant and a leader of the Renaissance Village residents' council, said he waited until his son turned 17 in December and then enrolled him in GED classes for adults. He spoke from the front steps of his trailer, painted in the purple and gold of Louisiana State University, where Chris had planned to attend.
"Now my chances of going," Chris said, "are slim to none."