Displaced students have varied reactions to their new school

By Fabvienen Taylor
Catholic News Service

MADISON, Miss. (CNS) -- Each of the students brought by Hurricane Katrina to St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison has a different take on things at the new school.

"There's more drama," said 15-year-old Michael Ali about attending a school where 49 percent of the students are female. The 10th-grader began the school year at all-male Archbishop Rummel High School in New Orleans.

Megan White, 17, found her new schoolmates already "cliqued-off."

"Students already had their friends," said White, who was a senior at Xavier University Preparatory School in New Orleans. That's a little rough at first for any new student, she said.

For 10th-grader Michael Turlich, getting to know people was easier at 485-student St. Joseph than at his former school, Brother Martin High School in Metairie, La., which had 1,600 students before Katrina.

"I like it better because you get to know everybody and in a really big school you don't get to meet everybody," Turlich told the Mississippi Catholic, newspaper of the Jackson Diocese.

While their individual experiences may differ, all the displaced students have one thing in common -- the trauma of being uprooted by Katrina from schools, communities, friends and, for some, family.

"The most important thing for the students was to get them back into a normal routine," said Diane Upton, guidance director and middle-school counselor at St. Joseph, which registered 103 new students after Katrina.

Catholic schools in the Jackson Diocese took in about 585 new students in all, according to the diocesan Department of Educational Services.

"All we were thinking about was the welfare of the kids and doing what we had to do," said Upton. "Also, we wanted to do what we could to take more and more pressure off their parents, who had all these decisions to make and things to figure out."

Most important, Upton said, was assuring students that the St. Joseph community was there for them. "We called them in, talked to them and let them know we were sensitive to their needs and any problems.

"But we, and they, wanted them to be treated as normally as possible," she added. "We gave them a little break at first, but let them know the same was expected of them from teachers as with the regular students."

Upton said the responses of students to what has happened have been varied. "Some act like nothing ever happened," she said. "They say they love it here and want to stay, don't want to go home when their parents do."

Others may cry every day, she said. "That happened more in the beginning. They are starting to get over that part. They say St. Joseph has been good to them but they want to go home, be with their friends."

Catholic Charities also is working with schools. "We want to be here to provide support to people needing help," said Louise Dillon, director of the Office of Family Ministry at Catholic Charities. "At this point we are just not sure what people need. We have to learn from them, listen to them."

To that end Catholic Charities counselors met recently with a group of parents and students from four Jackson-area Catholic schools. The meeting focused not on the trauma itself, but on the families' response.

"We talked about what they are proudest of in terms of coping with this crisis, about any new wisdom they have gained, about what skills and strategies they have developed as a family in the face of these challenges," Dillon said.

Catholic Charities and counselors associated with the agency also met with evacuees and their families living at a local hotel. "We want to be proactive, not just wait for problems to develop," Dillon said.

She advised parents to be compassionate, patient and reassuring to their children and to watch for any signs of stress their children may exhibit.

"Parents can look out for regressive behavior," she said. That might take the form of a child returning suddenly to bed-wetting or thumb-sucking or disturbance in sleeping.

Older teens may start taking more risks, their grades may drop or they may seem to get less enjoyment from the things they normally like, she said.

Today, as schools reopen or families relocate, only about 50 of the students who had to evacuate are still enrolled in St. Joseph. But even when schools reopen, some students no longer have a home and/or their parents have no job to which they can return.

"They are beginning to realize they may have to stay the whole year," said Upton. "Some say they would like to stay, while others want to go back to their friends, to their schools."

White plans to attend Hampton University in Virginia next fall. "I'm going to keep in contact with the new friends I've made here," she said. "I like this school. I feel like I'm home."

But the senior misses being a majorette and her theater arts group back home. "I still feel a little displaced, like I lost everything," she said. "There's no place like home."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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