Gulfport High Welcomes Students Back

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Gulfport High School reopens this week for the first time since Hurricane Katrina damaged the Mississippi school and scattered its students and teachers across the country.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

On August 26th, the students at Mississippi's Gulfport High School were getting settled into the new school year and preparing for their first football pep rally. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. It shut down the school for four weeks. Yesterday Gulfport High reopened for the first time since the storm, and NPR's Adam Hochberg was there.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

In Susan Cooper's senior English class, the first item on yesterday's lesson plan was a hug for every student.

Unidentified Girl #1: Hi, Ms. Cooper.

Unidentified Girl #2: How's my greatest teacher doing?

Ms. SUSAN COOPER (Teacher, Gulfport High School): Oh, I'm so glad you all are back. I have been missing you all. I'm going to hug you again.

HOCHBERG: The last time this class met, Ms. Cooper and her students were studying Shakespeare's "Hamlet." But that was before Katrina destroyed much of Gulfport. Now, in a school building where plywood covers broken windows and the water still isn't safe to drink, Cooper used her class to share experiences about the storm.

Ms. COOPER: We have been talking about where everyone's been, how many people have extra family members living with them, students who have had to leave their homes and move elsewhere, and we have used today as an opportunity just to really reconnect because I think that's real important for my students.

HOCHBERG: Like many teachers here, Cooper lost her own home in Katrina. She's staying in a borrowed apartment while some of her colleagues are living in trailers parked behind the school on a football practice field. But Cooper put aside her own troubles to listen to her class of 17- and 18-year-olds tell theirs.

Ms. COOPER: I'm gonna give you all some time to visit among yourselves, and then you all can tell me about you, if you want to. We'll kind...

HOCHBERG: Senior Enfanto White(ph) told her classmates she tried to weather the storm with her family in Gulfport but was forced to escape as flood waters rose in their house.

ENFANTO WHITE (Gulfport High School Senior): Opening the door, water was just pouring in, and there were dead dogs, you know, floating by. And the water was almost up over my little sister's head. So my dad had to practically carry her. We're just lucky to be alive.

HOCHBERG: Other students spoke of living a nomadic life, moving from shelter to shelter or from one relative's house to another.

AUSTIN PRICE(ph) (Gulfport High School Senior): We didn't even take anything. We left, like, 5:00 Sunday.

HOCHBERG: Austin Price is among those whose family no longer has a home of its own.

PRICE: It got 10 feet of water in it, knocked the walls off, knocked--all we have is, like, two-by-fours holding up the second floor. And now we're living in a 30-foot-long, 5-foot-wide trailer with bunk beds and a closet about this wide.

HOCHBERG: A few students who used to be in this class weren't there yesterday. Some are now living in different parts of Mississippi; one has sent word she's not coming back. But Principal Joel Myrick is thankful all of Gulfport's 1,700 students are alive, and he says school leaders now have the challenge of helping them deal with Katrina's aftermath.

Mr. JOEL MYRICK (Principal, Gulfport High School): I've been walking around. There's some--one child lost her brother. Another child is living in a car. There's lots of different problems, and so some kids are gonna need more than others, and we're just trying to take that on a very individual basis.

HOCHBERG: Gulfport teachers received special training last week to help them cope with trauma and to ease students back into what Myrick calls the business of school. With a month already lost and with SATs and other tests approaching, the principal says students need to get back to their studies, even as Katrina's scars continue to heal. Ms. Cooper says she'll have her English class reading "Hamlet" again by the end of the week. Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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