Houston Schools Enroll Katrina Evacuee Kids

As many as 6,000 school children from hurricane-affected areas are expected to attend classes in Houston, Texas. Capella Tucker of Houston Public Radio reports on efforts in the city's school district to accommodate them.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Today is the first day of class for thousands of children displaced by Hurricane Katrina, children who now call Houston's Astrodome and the city's two convention centers home. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker reports.

CAPELLA TUCKER reporting:

The Houston Independent School District has been told to expect up to 6,000 new students from New Orleans. Nine-year-old Terrianna Durrell(ph) is one of them, and her optimism shines through.

TERRIANNA DURRELL: I'm just happy I'm going to school so I can learn. That's what I'm happy for.

TUCKER: Are you looking forward to meeting your teacher?

DURRELL: Yes.

TUCKER: And what do you think you're gonna tell her?

DURRELL: I'm gonna tell her I'm from New Orleans, and I need to be treated nicely, that I know they already gonna treat me nicely. That's what they're gonna do.

TUCKER: The Durrell family, which includes three children, spent nearly two days in their home's attic before their father, Anthony Durrell, was able to break through the roof. They were then rescued by a boat. Durrell hopes school will get his children's minds off of what they've been through.

Mr. ANTHONY DURRELL(ph): It'll give them something to look forward to now, being in a new location with lot of people that's giving out a lot of love. You know what I'm saying? You know? You know? I appreciate this from the bottom of my heart.

TUCKER: For families like the Mitchells with teen-agers, it may take a little longer to adjust. Sixteen-year-old Christopher is anxious.

CHRISTOPHER MITCHELL: I'm not ready to go to school right now. I miss my old school. All I know is I'm gonna take some time to fit in with the other people, everything.

TUCKER: His father, Raymond, is not worried.

Mr. RAYMOND MITCHELL: It's just that he miss his old school and his team, you know, those guys he used to hang out with. But it's not really going to be that hard. Once he getting established and adjusted to everything, everything will be just fine for him.

TUCKER: The families who are enrolling their children are planning to stay in Houston for the indefinite future. The parents plan to look for jobs and other housing arrangements while their children are in school. Other families who are still deciding whether to stay or move on are not yet enrolling their children. The Houston Independent School District is reopening two elementary schools that were closed last spring because of declining enrollment. HISD spokesperson Adriana Villarreal says those two schools will hold 1,300 students.

Ms. ADRIANA VILLARREAL (HISD Spokesperson): It'll be exactly like every other one of our 305 schools with all the same programs. We'll even have uniforms like we do at many of our other schools, so they don't have to worry about clothing. We'll provide all of that for them.

TUCKER: The school district has been doing a lot of hiring, including teachers from the New Orleans area who are among the evacuees. Helen Franklin(ph) taught in Jefferson Parish for the past 23 years and made her way over to the HISD administration building to apply for a job.

Ms. HELEN FRANKLIN (Teacher): I would love to go back, but there is nothing to go back to. The Jefferson Parish public school system has stated that we need to find employment elseplace, so that's what I am doing at this current time.

TUCKER: A number of standard school requirements are being waived considering how the Katrina families found themselves in the Bayou City. Officials point out that school had already started in Louisiana, so most of the children have received vaccinations that are similar to Houston's requirements. The New Orleans students will increase Houston's enrollment by about 3 percent. This is in addition to the roughly 1,000 students the district has already enrolled from Katrina families who are staying with friends and relatives throughout the city. For NPR News, I'm Capella Tucker in Houston.

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