Texas Looks to Help Katrina Students Achieve Many Hurricane Katrina evacuees now attending school in Texas face repeating a grade if they don't pass the Texas statewide achievement tests. But school officials in the state capital of Austin are taking steps to help Katrina students, including hiring counselors who work exclusively with these children. Michael May of member station KUT in Austin profiles the work of one counselor.
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Texas Looks to Help Katrina Students Achieve

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Texas Looks to Help Katrina Students Achieve

Texas Looks to Help Katrina Students Achieve

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams. In a few minutes, there have been plenty of rock operas, so we will hear what opera that rocks sounds like.

But first, these are days of reckoning for the Louisiana high school seniors that still remain in Texas schools after Hurricane Katrina. And now, with the end of the year fast approaching, many are struggling to graduate. Michael May from member station KUT looks at how one high school in Austin is trying to stop evacuee seniors from falling through the cracks.

MICHAEL MAY reporting:

Lisa Rogers spends her days in a tiny office at McClellan High School. There the storm still rages. The walls are covered with graffiti scrawled butcher paper filled with the names of lost friends and neighborhoods. There's a line drawing of the Super Dome covered with water. Rogers' job is to keep the Louisiana kids who washed into Austin from just drifting away.

Ms. LISA ROGERS (Counselor, McClellan High School): Within my office, they can kind of unload the stuff that's clouding their brain.

MAY: Rogers is one of six counselors hired by the non-profit Communities in Schools to work exclusively with evacuee students.

Ms. ROGERS: And then go back to class, they can focus.

MAY: Today, senior Edward Naebone(ph) strolls in. He's got a chain with dog tags and a bullet dangling over his oversized t-shirt. His academic skills have improved dramatically in the past few months, but it may not be enough. Like half the evacuee seniors at McClellan, Naebone is struggling to finish high school.

Mr. EDWARD NAEBONE (Student, McClellan High School): What would you do if you don't graduate? Hmm. I ain't--I won't settle for a G.E.D., because I feel like that's second best, and I feel as if I deserve a little more than second best.

Ms. ROGERS: You've definitely got it in you to do it. I don't have any doubt.

MAY: Graduation would be a difficult transition for Naebone, even if he wasn't mourning the loss of his past life. The New Orleans school system had notoriously low standards. Texas, on the other hand, has rigorous high-stakes tests and strict truancy policies. Rogers says the first few months were absolutely chaotic.

Ms. ROGERS: The biggest thing that I saw was just a lack of structure. They were skipping classes all the time, and that was just sort of an accepted part of the school day from New Orleans.

MAY: Rogers says the evacuees would spend their time just hanging out in the halls, and she found herself on the hangout circuit.

Ms. ROGERS: As much as I loved it that they were coming in to ask for help, at the same time, I was being used. And, you know, I was an excuse to not be in class.

MAY: So the demure redhead with wide blue eyes got tough. She made it clear she was available by appointment only. And when the students come in to talk, she gives it to them straight.

Ms. ROGERS: I can't pull their grades up for them. I can't attend a class for them. And so, a lot of what I'm doing is just calling them on the choices that they're making that don't match up with what they say their immediate goal is.

MAY: For example, she helped Naebone get the tutoring he desperately needs. All Texas students must pass the State Accountability Test to graduate. Naebone has failed the test twice. On top of that, his high school transcripts were lost, so he can't prove he has enough credits to graduate. Rogers suggests he call his New Orleans school, Carver High. Suddenly, Naebone's head drops and his tightly wound dreadlocks fall over his eyes. Rogers takes notice.

Ms. ROGERS: Talking about Carver brought up a bunch of memories?

Mr. NAEBONE: Yeah. All my friends that--all the fun day that we had. It's seems so wrong that we were separated this way.

MAY: At the same time, Naebone feels conflicted. His teachers here have him excited about education for the first time.

Mr. NAEBONE: It's also a good thing, because a lot of people got a lot of new hopes and things. A good start. But after that's all and done, they're also going to still miss the place they was from.

MAY: Emotionally, the students are still fragile. So Rogers tries to keep the students focused on short-term goals, like helping the seniors graduate. Senior Douggy James(ph) only recently began attending his classes regularly.

Ms. ROGERS: Talking about graduating from high school. How does that feel, given where you were a month or so ago?

Mr. DOUGGY JAMES (Senior, McClellan High School): I'm proud of what I'm going be able to accomplish like. Because at first, I was telling you I really didn't care about school, because, like, a lot of people with education died in the hurricane. And their education didn't stop them from dying. So why did I need to get an education? But after that talk I had with you, it kind of gave me some encouragement.

MAYS: Now James wants to be a computer programmer who does choreography on the side. Naebone wants to play football for LSU and study journalism. They've got a long road ahead of them. But Rogers is teaching them to move steadily forward, keeping their eyes on the horizon. For NRP News, this is Michael May.

(Soundbite of Music)

ADAMS: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Noah Adams.

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