Parents Revive New Orleans Catholic School

In New Orleans, Catholic schools were just as hard hit by Katrina as the public schools. But the private Catholic institutions lacked the deep well of funding from state and national governments that has helped the public system. A dedicated group of parents has revived one Catholic high school.

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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

An arraignment today for the owners of St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish. Thirty-five people died there in the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Salvador Mangano and his wife blamed federal, state, and local officials for those deaths. The Manganos claim moving the residents would have put them at grater risk. They say there was no plan to help evacuate the most vulnerable residents.

The historic storm still affects their case. The Manganos were charged with negligent homicide only last month. The grand jury is just getting back to work in flooded St. Bernard Parish.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

St. Bernard Parish residents also had to deal with the loss of schools after the floodwaters subsided, which is true all up and down the Gulf Coast. Today our three-part series on the rebirth of schools hit by Katrina concludes with the story of a Catholic high school devastated by the storm.

A dedicated group of parents refused to let it die. Here's NPR's Larry Abramson.

(Soundbite of cheerleaders)

LARRY ABRAMSON: The cheerleaders of Our Lady of Prompt Succor Elementary School in St. Bernard Parish are doing warm-ups before an amazing backdrop. They're lined up in a huge barn of a building with no interior walls.

Nearby, students sit at desks. Elsewhere, a bunch of boys play flag football. The only thing separating these groups is a row of two-by-four studs. The walls were all a casualty of the four feet of water that once occupied this space.

But, Father Danny Digal says nobody is complaining.

Father DANNY DIGAL (Pastor, Our Lady of Prompt Succor School): We can't celebrate what we don't have.

ABRAMSON: Students from this elementary school used to go to the local Catholic High School, Archbishop Hannan High, when they graduated. But that school was totally destroyed - or at least the building was.

Ms. CAROL MANZELA(ph): Yeah.

Mr. TOMMY MANZELA(ph): But see the water line up here? It's where it settled there.

ABRAMSON: Seventy-five miles away, in Hammond, Louisiana, Tommy and Carol Manzela look through pictures of their destroyed home in St. Bernard Parish. The Manzelas have lived in many different places over the past year, but now they're comfortably ensconced many miles north of Lake Pontchartrain. For them, St. Bernard Parish and their children's high school will always be home.

Ms. MANZELA: There's Hannan.

Mr. MANZELA: There's Archbishop Hannan.

Ms. MANZELA: We had just gotten that. This is the fine arts building...

ABRAMSON: Hannan is Archbishop Hannan High School, where all three Manzela kids have gone to school. After they fled the storm, the family quickly learned their house had been destroyed. They gave up on rebuilding their home when they saw the ruins of their neighborhood.

But as the moved about, they kept one eye on the fate of Hannan, which had also been wiped out. Like other Hannan families, the Manzelas sent their daughter to another Catholic high school in the area, one they liked. But something was missing.

Mr. MANZELA: They didn't have a principal called John Serio.

Ms. MANZELA: Right.

ABRAMSON: John Serio has been Hannan's legendary principal since the school's inception two decades ago. Parents knew they might have to do without Hannan's famed sports fields and its new arts building, but they wanted Serio back.

Ms. MANZELA: Then, you know, Mr. Serio started getting phone calls from other students that were elsewhere in Louisiana and Texas and Alabama, saying, well if Hannan's going to open up, we're coming back.

Mr. MANZELA: So the Archdiocese opened their ears, you know, and said, hey, you know, these people want this school back.

Ms. MANZELA: But it wasn't easy. They kept saying, no, no, no, no, for a long time.

ABRAMSON: When the Archdiocese gave in, the Manzelas quickly focused their house-hunting efforts on the north shore area so they'd be in place when the school reopened.

(Soundbite of students)

ABRAMSON: Footsteps clatter across the metal catwalks that link together a small colony of trailers in rural Covington, Louisiana, the new home of Archbishop Hannan High. About a hundred students from the former site have found their way to their alma mater, and to their principal, John Serio.

He bristles at the idea that this school was reborn solely because of him.

Mr. JOHN SERIO (Principal, Archbishop Hannan High School): What defines this school is the mission of this school, and the philosophy of this school, which is old-fashioned values. There are consequences for bad decisions.

ABRAMSON: Serio is a big man, in a crisp white shirt and tie. He sits now on a folding chair in a trailer, and works on a collapsible table. The school still has no Internet access.

Serio says he's as surprised as anyone the school has returned. When he saw the remains of the old building after the flood, he was convinced it was all over.

Mr. SERIO: When I got in, it was absolute devastation. There was not one item that I picked up and saved in my office. And, we couldn't even get through the rest of the school. We couldn't get through it. It was too crushed. The building was crushed.

ABRAMSON: The rapid rebirth of Catholic schools is a stark contrast to the public schools, where enrollment is only about a third of what it once was. For many, parochial schools are a refuge from the failing public school system.

Since the storm, the Archdiocese has made a commitment to welcome all children who want to come, whether they can afford it or not.

Mr. SERIO: We've had non-Catholic students in this school for 20 years. I've never had a non-Catholic parent ever come up and say, my kid is uncomfortable, my child is uncomfortable. We've had non-Catholic students that got the medallion at graduation for having the highest average in religion.

ABRAMSON: Serio is disappointed about one thing. He doesn't like the cramped trailer they use as a cafeteria, where some kids have to squat on the floor to eat the fast food that's being brought in. He says, the old campus had a beautiful courtyard, where everyone gathered for an hour-long lunch break.

Mr. SERIO: You brought a sandwich for me? (Laughs)

ABRAMSON: As he slaps backs and teases students, Serio looks like a principal out of some movie: a tough disciplinarian who's earned students' respect. Senior Cassie Carrera(ph) says the man is definitely strict.

Ms. CASSIE CARRERA (Student): He is. He doesn't put up with anything that, like, doesn't belong in a high school atmosphere. But, I mean, I admire him for that. Because he doesn't take - he takes criticism well and he's able to just stand by his beliefs.

ABRAMSON: Plans are underway to build a new, permanent campus for Hannan, where Principal John Serio can keep whipping kids into shape for a third decade.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Go to npr.org and you can hear all of our series on the New Orleans' schools.

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