Baton Rouge Parochial Schools Overwhelmed

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Public schools in New Orleans were devastated, as were the region's Catholic schools. And the Baton Rouge Catholic school system is struggling to accommodate evacuee families in this heavily Catholic region.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now Katrina did not just shut down public schools. It closed down more than 100 Catholic schools in New Orleans alone and forced 50,000 Catholic school students to scatter across the nation. About 10,000 students and their families have settled in nearby Baton Rouge where the parochial schools have been overwhelmed. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

The Archdiocese of Baton Rouge has no spare school buildings, no buses, no big educational endowments and little or no room for the 10,000 Catholic school students seeking to relocate here from New Orleans. So parents have spent weeks now knocking on church doors, frustrated and angry.

Sister MARY MICHAELINE (Superintendent of Schools, Diocese of Baton Rouge): I know they are, and it is a very, very sad situation.

SANCHEZ: Sister Mary Michaeline is superintendent of schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

Sister MICHAELINE: So what we're doing is we're having a meeting with all the parents on Tuesday night in our auditorium here, and we're going to say to them, `These are places that are available. It may not be near you, but would you be willing to send your children there if we opened them?'

(Soundbite of people)

SANCHEZ: The meeting at St. Aloysius, a beautiful sprawling campus not far from downtown Baton Rouge, drew hundreds of parents and students mostly from all-girl Catholic schools. The diocese's plan? To open satellite night schools throughout Baton Rouge and pray that parents will be willing to shuttle their kids long distances late into the evening if necessary. The person handpicked to make the plan work: Sister Camielle Ann Campbell(ph), a Carmelite nun from New Orleans known for being tough and organized.

Sister CAMIELLE ANN CAMPBELL (Carmelite Nun): For the families that have no school and no homes back in New Orleans, it's absolutely devastating not even to have something to offer your children that has a semblance of normalcy, a Catholic school, a Catholic church, little friends that they would be familiar with in some way at age level. So for those people, it has to be just the most painful situation.

(Soundbite of music)

People: (Singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.

SANCHEZ: After a short Mass, the crowd spilled out into the parking lot where some parents vented their frustrations. Terese Roberts(ph) is from Metairie, Louisiana.

Ms. TERESE ROBERTS: I just don't know what--my child was at one school, St. Joe's, was there for a week, was miserable because she couldn't be with her friends. She's a senior, and it was very upsetting. So I said, `Fine.' We got her into a public school with her friends, and now it seems like we need to put them in a satellite school at night. And I'm confused as what to do now.

SANCHEZ: Cindy Maio(ph) says for most parents, public schools are not an option.

Ms. CINDY MAIO: This is what I think.

SANCHEZ: She pulled her daughter Beth out of a public school after only a couple of days.

Ms. MAIO: And they're not accustomed. And public schools, God bless them, are--just have a different way than Catholic schools.

Unidentified Teen: I've been in Catholic schools since pre-K.

Ms. MAIO: My children, too.

Unidentified Woman: Mine, too. All of mine.

Ms. MAIO: So this is what they're accustomed to.

Unidentified Woman: True.

SANCHEZ: Catholic school officials in Baton Rouge say it's going to take a miracle to make room for the five to 6,000 students who've still not found a Catholic school in Baton Rouge, but the biggest task for the church in this crisis, says Sister Mary Michaeline, is long term.

Sister MICHAELINE: We have to help them not to waste their suffering. Suffering is a part of our church. Christ died and he saved us through suffering and dying on the cross, but we can use this suffering to grow and to help the church.

SANCHEZ: The financial hit on the Diocese of New Orleans and Baton Rouge, meanwhile, could be staggering. The National Catholic Education Association is asking every Catholic school student in the country to donate $1, which could raise about $2 1/2 million. The US Department of Education, for its part, has put together a $2 1/2 billion relief package that Catholic schools will be allowed to tap into.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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