A Stormy School Year Ends at Lafayette High

Graduation time offers a chance to reflect on students displaced by Hurricane Katrina. In Lafayette, La., the school year brought many challenges and forged new friendships. But many high schoolers long to return to New Orleans.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

High school graduation in Lafayette, Louisiana this year will be like no other. Dozens of teenagers who fled hurricane Katrina with their families are graduating today from several high schools in this small city 130 miles northwest of New Orleans. At one school in particular, though, the end of the school year is bittersweet, especially for Katrina kids who won't graduate and still can't go home. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

In the first few days after Katrina, no high school in southern Louisiana took in more kids all at once than Lafayette High, 250, mostly from New Orleans, Saint Bernard and Saint Tammany parishes.

Unidentified Woman: Tara Elizabeth Fowler Fontano(ph), Craig Francis Junior(ph), Terel Terrell Francis(ph).

SANCHEZ: At Wednesday's graduation rehearsal, though, the mood was subdued. There was no mention of Katrina or plans to acknowledge the eight displaced students who will be graduating in the green and black gown of their adopted school, Lafayette High. The end of the school year is especially tough for kids like Kendall McManez(ph) and Wallace Bertrand(ph). They have another year to go, and both desperately want to return to their own schools in New Orleans. Wallace says he's tried to make the best of it here. He joined the band, one of the best in the state. He played the baritone and the tuba, but there was no joy, says Wallace.

Mr. WALLACE BERTRAND (Displaced Student): It wasn't like New Orleans, and then I quit. I got sick of playing their kind of music, because it's not my type of music. It's too slow and boring and make people go to sleep. And in New Orleans we play all the latest songs and it's just fun.

SANCHEZ: Wallace, 17, says he also didn't work nearly as hard here as he did back in the school he loves, St. Augustine, an all-boys Catholic high school in New Orleans. That's where he plans to be next school year, he says.

Mr. BERTRAND: When I go back, I'm going to live with my daddy on his job. And then sooner or later our house will finished rebuilt, because right now they're working on it right now. They got to put the walls and stuff up, and that's it, and carpet.

SANCHEZ: Wallace is lucky, says 16-year-old Kendall. Kendall could go stay with an aunt in New Orleans, but he's stuck in Lafayette because the woman who raised him, his grandmother, has decided to stay in Lafayette, permanently, and Kendall does not want her to be alone. She lost everything to Katrina.

Another year in Lafayette wouldn't be so bad, Kendall says, if only kids at school weren't so prejudiced.

Mr. KENDALL MCMANUS(ph) (Displaced Student): Because they thought that all the New Orleans kids was dumb, stupid and I pretty sure we proved that wrong, because I make better grades than some of them. White, black, Spanish, African, it doesn't matter. Mexican, Puerto Rican.

SANCHEZ: Kendall took as many honors courses as the school will allow and did pretty well. Assistant Principal Laura Domingue admits New Orleans' students surprised everyone.

Ms. LAURA DOMINGUE (Assistant Principal, Lafayette High School): Academically, they all did real well. Considering the trauma they went through, considering moving in their senior year.

SANCHEZ: Domingue says if there was tension, it was minimal. Maybe a few fights and insults thrown both ways, but nothing like the brawls in Houston-area high schools where the vast majority of New Orleans students enrolled. Domingue says Lafayette High, for the most part, welcomed these kids.

Ms. DOMINGUE: The dance team let them join in, the cheerleaders let them join in. Some of the m played sports. They joined Key Club, they joined service organizations. Whether they were leaders or followers, they joined clubs and they got involved.

SANCHEZ: Lafayette School Superintendent James Easton says of course schools struggled with some of these student. What did people expect in the aftermath of Katrina's devastation? No community could have fully prepared to receive so many people. To this day, says Easton, the federal government has yet to fully reimburse the district for the millions of dollars it has spent on misplaced students.

On the other hand, Easton says, he couldn't be more proud of his community, especially its young people.

Mr. JAMES EASTON (Superintendent, Lafayette Schools): These students became partners, they reached out, and I find that to be so very gratifying. And I think it does make that class unique.

SANCHEZ: Still, with only a few Katrina kids left in Lafayette schools, Easton seems relieved. As to why some kids like Wallace Bertrand and Kendall McManus were unhappy here, Easton says they simply realized just how much they loved their home, New Orleans. That's obvious.

Mr. BERTRAND: Before the hurricane came, that Saturday before the hurricane came, we were supposed to St. Aug vs. Warren Easton(ph). Purple and gold vs. silver.

Mr. MCMANUS: And they was going to get whipped.

Mr. BERTRAND: Purple and gold vs. purple and gold.

SANCHEZ: Wallace and Kendall, who became close friends even though they attended rival schools in New Orleans, still feud about whose band is and always will be the best in the city. Wallace turns to me and says, it's going to be a while though before you hear the kind of music and the joy we're talking about.

(Soundbite of music)

SANCHEZ: The (unintelligible) to New Orleans, he says, to the French Quarter, on the corner of Canal and Royal, then, says Wallace, you'll understand why going back is so important to us.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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