Louisiana Kids Return To School, A Bubble Of Normalcy After Massive Floods

Sep 8, 2016
Originally published on September 8, 2016 6:52 pm

Things are far from normal for people in Louisiana hit by last month's historic flood. Thousands have lost their homes, their cars, their jobs.

But one routine resumed this week in Baton Rouge: Students are back in class after a three-week interruption.

At Claiborne Elementary in north Baton Rouge, kids are tussling on school playgrounds again, even as their families' soaked belongings lay in heaps along neighborhood streets.

Every available space at the school has been converted to a classroom. The campus is now hosting students displaced from Howell Park Elementary, about 2 1/2 miles away.

The goal is to keep it normal even though the schools are merged, says Rochelle Anderson, principal of the host school.

"We wanted to make sure that the students walked into the school that was very structured," she says. "Regardless of the disarray, once you walked through the building, that disarray would somehow diminish."

Every class has its own room; there's no doubling up. And the usual classroom rules are in place.

But Anderson says the school is being more lenient about uniforms and supplies washed away in the flood.

"We just want them here, in that school. And we'll take care of the rest," she says. "We'll feed them, we'll clothe them, we'll give them supplies, we'll love them. But more importantly we're going to teach them."

Anderson is displaced herself and lost her vehicle in the flood — one of about a third of staff members in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system affected.

Systemwide, structural damage is estimated to top $50 million. The school system lost one-third of its bus fleet, and food worth more than $70,000. Twelve schools are in the same position as Howell Park Elementary, now meeting elsewhere. The principal of Howell Park, Rochelle Washington-Scott, says her school is now a construction zone.

"They're still trying to get rid of mold and go through things to see if there's anything that can be salvaged," she says. "So right now all we know is that we're at Claiborne until further notice."

She makes the rounds to make sure her teachers and students are comfortable in the new setting. The biggest issue has been transportation, she says. Most of her students walked to school but now they're spread out across the region, with no place to call home.

Washington-Scott says Howell Park families were predominantly renters and are having a hard time finding housing now with rental properties in short supply after the flood.

"That's been the painful part of it," she says. "That's why we've been making it such a big deal for a school to be the haven, the safe house, the place where at least if you know your baby is here, they're fine until you figure out what you need to do as far as living arrangements go."

The living arrangement for nearly 100 East Baton Rouge Parish students means passing through a metal detector at the River Center downtown, the city's emergency shelter.

Sarita Fritzler with Save the Children says the situation takes a toll on kids.

"At first it might be exciting to be living in a shelter, to be meeting this new surrounding," Fritzler says. "But now we're seeing children who are just anxious. What's next? Where do we go next? They've seen people come and go, and they're still here."

For the three weeks that school was interrupted, Save the Children operated a space in the shelter for kids to play games and do arts and crafts — and have somebody to talk to. Now it serves as an after-school program.

Worker Patricia Duncan is at a table molding play dough with 11-year-old Talesha Coleman. In her first day back in class, Talesha says they wrote stories about what has happened since the flood: She wrote about living in the shelter.

Louella Coleman is the girl's grandmother.

"That's my little grandbaby. That's Talesha. And I tell her we just keep it positive," she says.

Coleman, who is raising Talesha and her 6-year-old sister, is disabled and uses a walker to get around the shelter. She has a bright scarf wrapped around her hair, and a wide, warm grin despite her predicament.

"I never let 'em take away my glory," she says. "I keep a smile on my face 24 hours no matter what."

The family has been living at River Center since Aug. 12, when her rental house was flooded and she lost everything.

"I've just gotten to a point where I just leave it in God's hands now," Coleman says. "That's all I can do."

She is glad to have the girls back in school; she calls herself a "diehard" for education.

But things are off to a rocky start because the first-graders' bus hasn't made it back to the shelter, and it's now after 6 p.m.

"She's not here yet," Coleman says. "For them to just have her sitting there at the bus terminal, it's frightening to me, because she's just 6. She's not used to that."

The aftermath of the flood means dealing with a lot that people aren't used to: The River Center shelter will be closing next week, and Coleman has yet to find a place to live.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Things are far from normal for people in Louisiana hit by last month's historic flooding. Thousands have lost their homes, their cars, their jobs. But one routine resumed this week in Baton Rouge. Students are back in class after a three-week interruption. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: There's a familiar sound in communities around Baton Rouge.

ELLIOTT: Kids are tussling on school playgrounds again even as their families' soaked belongings lay in heaps along neighborhood streets. Here at Claiborne Elementary in North Baton Rouge, every available space has been converted to a classroom. The campus is now hosting students displaced from Howell Park Elementary.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Visitors we have on the campus - teachers, today you will have to go with your students to the cafeteria.

ELLIOTT: The goal is to keep it normal even though the schools are merged, says host principal Rochelle Anderson.

ROCHELLE ANDERSON: We wanted to make sure that the students walked into the school that was very structured regardless of the disarray. Once you walk through the building, that disarray would somehow diminish.

ELLIOTT: Every class has a room. There's no doubling up. And rules are in place, as Ms. Pham reminds her first graders.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So do you talk when I do this?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: No.

ELLIOTT: But Anderson says the school's being more lenient about uniforms and supplies washed away in the flood.

ANDERSON: We'll feed them. We'll clothe them. We'll give them supplies. We'll love them. But more importantly, we're going to teach them.

ELLIOTT: Anderson is displaced herself and lost her vehicle in the flood, one of about a third of staff members in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system affected. Twelve schools are now meeting elsewhere.

ROCHELLE WASHING-SCOTT: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: At Claiborne school, the Howell Park principal, Rochelle Washing-Scott, makes the rounds to make sure her teachers and students are comfortable in the new setting. The biggest issue has been transportation, she says. Most of her students walk to school, but now they're spread out across the region with no place to call home.

WASHINGTON-SCOTT: That's been the painful part of it. So that's why we've been making it such a big deal for a school to be the haven, the safe house, the place where at least you know if your baby's here (laughter), they're fine until you figure out kind of what you need to do as far as living arrangements go.

ELLIOTT: The living arrangement for nearly a hundred East Baton Rouge Parish students means passing through this metal detector at the River Center downtown, the city's emergency shelter. Sarita Fritzler with Save the Children says the situation takes a toll.

SARITA FRITZLER: At first it might be exciting to be living in a shelter, to be meeting, you know, this new surrounding. But then now we're seeing children who are just anxious. Like, what's next? Where do we go next? They've seen people come and go, and they're still here.

ELLIOTT: For the three weeks that school was interrupted, Save the Children had a space in the shelter for kids to play games and have somebody to talk to. Now it serves as an after-school program.

PATRICIA DUNCAN: How was school today?

TALESHA COLEMAN: Good.

DUNCAN: It was good.

ELLIOTT: Worker Patricia Duncan is at a table, molding Play-Doh with 11-year-old Talesha Coleman in her first day back in class. She says they wrote stories about what has happened since the flood.

What was your story?

TALESHA: Me being here.

LOUELLA COLEMAN: That's my little grandbaby. That's Talesha. And you know, I tell her we just keep it positive.

ELLIOTT: Louella Coleman is raising two grandchildren, Talesha and her 6-year-old sister. She's disabled and uses a walker to get around the shelter. She has a wide, warm smile despite her predicament. The family has been living here since August 12 when her rental house got water and she lost everything.

COLEMAN: I've gotten to the point where I just leave it in God's hand now. That's all I can do.

ELLIOTT: Coleman is glad to have the girls back in school. She calls herself a diehard for education. But things are off to a rocky start because the first graders' bus hasn't made it back to the shelter, and it's now after 6.

COLEMAN: She's not here yet. For them to just have her sitting there at the bus terminal is frightening to me because she's just 6. She's not used to that.

ELLIOTT: The aftermath of the flood means dealing with a lot that people aren't used to. The shelter will be closing next week, and Coleman has yet to find a place to live. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Baton Rouge.

(CROSSTALK) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.