A Charter New Orleans School — In Houston

New Orleans West is a charter school in Houston, serving students who were forced to leave their city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The teachers and staff — who are also storm evacuees — strive to create a sense of home for the displaced kids. Capella Tucker of Houston Public Radio reports.

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Six months ago, more than 5500 children displaced by Hurricane Katrina ended up in Houston public schools. The district opened three new elementary schools to make places for them. Many of those kids have returned home by now, but one of the school's is still opened. It's called New Orleans West.

Houston Public Radio Capella Tucker reports more than 300 children go to classes there every day.

CAPELLA TUCKER reporting:

New Orleans West is tucked away in a quite Houston inner city neighborhood of low income single story homes. The Houston school system was no longer using the three-story structure, so it was available for use by Katrina evacuees. New Orleans West School Principal Gary Robicheaux says making the evacuee children feel at home is part of the goal.

Mr. GARY ROBICHEAUX (Principle, New Orleans West Elementary School): We want to keep the spirit of New Orleans here. And we want the kids to remember, you know, the city we all came from.

TUCKER: And the staff has worked hard to do that. For example, next month the school plans a jazz festival. Last month the parking lot became Canal Street as students in green and purple masks staged their own Mardi Gras parade, tossing throws to staff and teachers.

At the parade, Angela Page says the school is succeeding making her five-year-old daughter Nataki(ph) feel at home.

Ms. ANGELA PAGE (Mother of New Orleans West Student): It reminds them of their schools in New Orleans, even though it's a lot of kids come from a lot of different schools, but the teaching, knowing that you're around somebody who attended a school in New Orleans made you feel more comfortable, because you know they can easily relate to what happened and what was going on.

TUCKER: The teachers and principal at New Orleans West understand. They are all evacuees as well. Robicheaux led a state charter school in New Orleans. The school, located near Lake Pontchartrain, was washed away.

Mr. ROBICHEAUX: We came, we had a lot of students here in Houston. We came to help our students in Houston get into schools. And there were just so many kids here. It was just so overwhelming, the amount of kids that wanted help to get into schools.

TUCKER: School officials decided to open a campus in Houston and enrolled 500 evacuees. Teachers from a number of New Orleans schools heard about the school in Houston and came looking to help. Robicheaux says the first couple of months were emotional for everyone, but especially for the children.

Mr. ROBICHEAUX: Kids being homesick, kids crying. So it was tough in the beginning but that ended, that ended up bringing everybody closer together. So everybody has shared the same experience. All the teachers here are from New Orleans too.

TUCKER: Teachers say the children were confused at first, but all 35 members of the faculty have been doing their best to be supportive. Terrence Manuel is the detention monitor and helps students who have not completed their homework. He says the students didn't take school seriously.

Mr. TERRENCE MANUEL (Detention Monitor, New Orleans West Elementary School): Do the grades count? Do the school count? How long we going to be here? Are we going to plan on leaving? Are going to be here a month or two? I told them just like an ordinary school session, ordinary school year, they would be here every day. The grades do count and do the best you can. And make academics your first priority.

TUCKER: Manuel encourages the students to focus on their grades and to put the storm behind them. Students say the teachers act as if there was no hurricane. Seventh grader Steven Jones says it helped him and his friends focus, and put the experience behind them.

Mr. STEVEN JONES (Seventh-Grader, New Orleans West Elementary School): Oh, we talked about a lot of stuff. We don't bad talk about the hurricane because, like the hurricane, something bad happened. So we don't bad talk about it like that.

TUCKER: When the school year ends, Jones' family plans to move back to New Orleans. They are joining the more than 150 families who have already left. Enrollment has dropped to 350. But the school has been well received in the community, and now has a waiting list of Houston families who hope the school will stay so their children can attend.

For NPR News, I'm Capella Tucker in Houston.

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