Spirit of Giving Keeps Gulf Coast School Going

Kids in front of a tent. Credit: Steve Drummond, NPR. i i

Of the 174 students attending the school before Katrina, 114 have returned to class at St. Clare. Steve Drummond, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Drummond, NPR
Kids in front of a tent. Credit: Steve Drummond, NPR.

Of the 174 students attending the school before Katrina, 114 have returned to class at St. Clare.

Steve Drummond, NPR
Kids in a tent classroom. Credit: Steve Drummond, NPR.

Teachers at St. Clare say that the students who've returned are doing pretty well. Even with tents for classrooms, the school provides a chance for them to get back a part of their former world. Steve Drummond, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Drummond, NPR
Principal Mark Cumella ties a child's shoe. Credit: Steve Drummond, NPR.

Principal Mark Cumella does a lot more at the school than just make sure the bills get paid. Steve Drummond, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Drummond, NPR
The church is a tent, too. Credit: Steve Drummond, NPR. i i

The Catholic school's church is now just another tent. Behind the church tent are the classrooms and a little patch of sod where the students can run around. Steve Drummond, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Steve Drummond, NPR
The church is a tent, too. Credit: Steve Drummond, NPR.

The Catholic school's church is now just another tent. Behind the church tent are the classrooms and a little patch of sod where the students can run around.

Steve Drummond, NPR

Santa Claus came early to the St. Clare School, and he's been back several times since then.

Before Katrina, the little school sat just off the beach in Waveland, Miss., with a nice view of the Gulf of Mexico. When the storm had passed, says principal Mark Cumella, there wasn't much left — just scattered debris. "Our slabs had been swept clean."

"This used to be the girls' bathroom," Cumella says as he stands on fragments of light blue mosaic tile.

On top of where the old school sat is a brand new one, though temporary. In neat rows up and down the former school site are 18 tents — 20-by-50 foot structures in a desert tan color that look like military Quonset huts. There's an office, a cafeteria, a technology center and classrooms for the children who've come back.

The tents are gifts from way up north — not the North Pole, but close.

They were donated to the school and the town of Waveland by Alaska Structures, an Anchorage-based company that makes them for the military.

Cumella calls the tents, and other donations, "divine intervention" that helped this Roman Catholic school get up and running 9 weeks to the day after the storm, offering children a daily dose of normalcy in a community where there is precious little that resembles life before Katrina.

In the rest of the town, clothing and garbage bags flutter from the trees, showing how high the storm surge reached. Of 8,000 residents, only about 3,000 remain in the area, and few are back in their homes. FEMA trailers fill a nearby state park, and along the beach piles of debris mark what used to be homes.

On Beach Drive a rusting U-Haul truck sits just off the road, sunk in the sand up to its hubcaps. A little farther down there's a gray tent with a little cross, and out in front a spray-painted sign, "Sunday Mass – 8:30 and 11 a.m." Behind the church tent are the classrooms and a little patch of sod where the students can run around.

"The playground is still off limits," says Cumella as a bunch of preschoolers cluster around him, talking all at once. A little boy asks for help tying his shoe. These 4-year-olds are outside for a short recess, about to head back in for their afternoon nap.

Before Katrina, the school had 174 students enrolled in prekindergarten through the 6th grade. Cumella says 114 have come back. The rest are still scattered around the country.

"I’ve spoken to every state but Hawaii," Cumella says. "We still have some kids in Maine."

Throughout the Gulf Coast, schools are slowly coming back on line. Two public schools in the Bay St. Louis-Waveland district were completely destroyed and others were heavily damaged. But students are back in school. Even some public schools in heavily damaged New Orleans have reopened in recent weeks.

At the St. Clare School, teachers say that the students who've returned are doing pretty well — the school provides a chance for them to get back a part of their former world.

"We don't talk about it too much," kindergarten teacher Susan Simonson says of Katrina. "We're trying to make this a normal life."

And they've done that to a remarkable degree. Cumella opens the door of a second-grade classroom and steps inside. Immediately, the students stand and recite in unison, "Good Afternoon, Mr. Cumella. God Bless you." He responds, "God Bless you, second grade."

If it wasn't for the thin fabric walls and bare light bulbs hanging from wires, this could be a classroom in any parochial elementary school. The children sit at brand-new desks, working on a writing assignment. Hanging from the wall is a long banner showing the letters of the alphabet. In a corner stands a Christmas tree.

Cumella and his pastor decided early on to try to reopen the school without laying off staff. They had to raise enough money to keep the school going. Corporate and private donors from all over the country have pitched in, though Cumella is still operating on a shoestring.

"I got a check for $77 from a little girl in Portland, Ore.," he says.

Over the summer, Lockheed Martin Corporation had given the school dozens of new computers for a technology center.

"We were able to use it for two weeks," says Mary Bartholomew, the school's technology coordinator. Then the storm hit. After Katrina, the company has kicked in with new machines, and the school's wireless network and Web site are up and running again.

Everywhere there are signs of Christmas. In the most recent show of generosity, Wawa food stores, a Pennsylvania-based company, donated gifts and food for the school to throw a Christmas party.

All of which, Cumella says, is helping his students recover. After what they've been through, he says, "this is fun for them. They're back with their teachers, and back with their classmates."

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