Universities Struggle to Recover in New Orleans The impact Hurricane Katrina had on schools in New Orleans has been widely reported, but less has been said about the damage to higher education in the city. Southern University at New Orleans, a historically black college, is still meeting in trailers.
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Universities Struggle to Recover in New Orleans

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Universities Struggle to Recover in New Orleans

Universities Struggle to Recover in New Orleans

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From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Twenty debates and still no clear Democratic winner, but we will take the score of last night's encounter between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. That story coming up.

BRAND: We'll start today in New Orleans, still struggling to rebuild two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina. We'll look now at the colleges and universities there. Some of them lost nearly half of their students. Attendance is now going up, but many schools will never be the same.

And at one university the dream is just to get back into its own buildings. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: On a brilliant spring-like day, chancellor Victor Ukpolo surveys his domain - Southern University at New Orleans, a proud historically black college originally founded in the 19th century. Instead of a campus of stately structures, a sea of trailers stretches out toward the horizon.

Mr. VICTOR UKPOLO (Southern University at New Orleans): Physically we have 45 trailer communities, 45 itself altogether, made up of classrooms, offices, computer labs.

ABRAMSON: Ukpolo walks through a forest of temporary buildings that house everything from his office to the cafeteria. They are functional but soulless. During a break between classes, students stand around in knots, gathering uncomfortably on wooden walkways.

Mr. UKPOLO: Of course the student life is not as good as we would like it to right now. Many of our students are very frustrated about it. All aspects of this campus needs improvement, all aspects.

ABRAMSON: Ukpolo came to the school after Katrina hit. He proposed this set-up as a temporary solution, but he had no idea he'd be in trailers for two years. What's the cause? Ukpolo can only blame red tape, a substance as ubiquitous here as Spanish moss.

Mr. UKPOLO: It is frustrating to me to the nth degree. I can tell you that. And I'm very frustrated. But at the same time I have to be reasonable and look at what we are facing.

ABRAMSON: Ukpolo is facing the only school that had every single building submerged under as much as 11 feet of water.

Just across the railroad tracks from the trailer city, the old campus still sits, a soggy mess, virtually untouched since the storm. A water line still stains many walls at eye level or higher.

Workers like electrician Jerry Baldwin are now finally taking the first tentative steps toward restoring this campus. He's putting in temporary wires so workers can clean out the school's 11 trashed buildings.

Mr. JERRY BALDWIN (Electrician): Those are temporary wires going in there. They're basically going to gut that whole building.

ABRAMSON: So they need power so they can work?

Mr. BALDWIN: Absolutely. They don't have no power in that building.

ABRAMSON: Right. So...

Mr. BALDWIN: On account of that famous storm. You know, that one that went in history.

ABRAMSON: I heard about that.

Mr. BALDWIN: Yeah.

ABRAMSON: A sense of humor comes in very handy down here. But for the faculty and students the joke is getting old fast.

Southern University at New Orleans, known as SUNO, has an open admissions policy. Everyone gets in. That means many students here need remedial help.

Dr. RICHARD MAJESTE (Southern University at New Orleans): My question is, are you happy with your grade?

Unidentified Woman #1: No.

Unidentified Woman #2: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: In a classroom trailer, chemistry teacher Dr. Richard Majeste is dealing with his students' disappointment that many did poorly on a test. Declining enrollment after the storm forced SUNO to drop a number of degree programs, including chemistry. That means it's harder to find tutors for beginning students like these.

Dr. MAJESTE: Typically, we would have junior and senior chemistry students that we would hire through work-study to do the tutoring. Because we don't have that, we have less of a pool to draw from.

ABRAMSON: Dr. Majeste - yes, that's his real name - is a jolly fellow who's been teaching for 37 and a half years here. He hasn't thought about quitting, even though he still can't teach a full chemistry lab. Certain chemicals can't be used safely in the trailers.

It's so frustrating, he says. Majeste snuck into his old building right after the storm and only the first floor had been damaged. But the longer buildings sat vacant, the more moisture and decay crept upward.

Dr. MAJESTE: The first day that I walked through the building, and again, that was right after the hurricane, it was fine. A month later I came back and looked at the deterioration and I knew we would be two years plus to get back.

ABRAMSON: SUNO's normal enrollment of 3,600 dropped to around 2,000 after Katrina. It's finally approaching 3,000. And now that FEMA has promised to restore the campus, administrators are hoping it will be better than ever. They even have funding to build the first dorms in the school's history.

(Soundbite of thunderstorm)

ABRAMSON: A few miles away, the camps of Delgado Community College still floods during New Orleans' frequent thunderstorms, a grim reminder of the bullet this school dodged. Though flooding was limited here, 40 percent of the campus buildings are still closed off because of mold and other problems.

Upstairs in the student life center at the City Park campus, makeshift offices are separated by black curtains and suspended from pipes. Workers here say it looks more like a portrait studio than an office.

Molly Jahncke handles public relations for Delgado.

Ms. MOLLY JAHNCKE (Delgado Community College): What this normally is is a ballroom where we hold events and lectures and seminars and such. Right now it's functioning as the Admissions Office.

ABRAMSON: People are clearly not happy they're still in temporary digs two and a half years after the flood. So thank goodness for irrepressible optimists like enrollment services advisor Bob Monette(ph), who seems to like the close quarters.

Mr. BOB MONETTE (Delgado Community College): There's no hiding. Talk about interrelationships, you know. If we make a mistake or we say something wrong, somebody pops up immediately. No, don't you know they moved? Yeah. We're united now in time and space.

ABRAMSON: And there's a lot of reason to be positive. Eighty percent of Delgado's 17,000 students have returned. Now the concern is, can they open enough buildings to accommodate the growth? The post-flood job market is driving that growth.

Chancellor Alex Johnson says Delgado is responding to the booming demand for skilled construction workers and healthcare staff.

Mr. ALEX JOHNSON (Chancellor, Delgado Community College): Right now 67 percent of the jobs in New Orleans that pay premium wages require some type of technical skill training beyond high school and not necessarily a four-year degree.

ABRAMSON: And there's a difference in the kind of student that Delgado teachers see. Miguel Romar Manuel works with students who need remedial work. She tells of one woman who was working as a dancer before the storm, but she came to Delgado to build stronger job skills.

Ms. MIGUEL ROMAR MANUEL (Delgado Community College): I have another elderly woman who was a hairdresser, and having been displaced lost all of her client base. She realized that that was just not enough anymore. So she too is seeking something more stable, more reliable, that in case she's thrust upon another city she'll be able to compete.

ABRAMSON: The number of online students at Delgado has also exploded, in part because students still can't find housing nearby. For higher ed, the post-Katrina world still means a lot of pain, but also some gain.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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