New Orleans Archdiocese to set up satellite schools

By Peter Finney Jr.
Catholic News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. (CNS) -- The Archdiocese of New Orleans is planning to establish satellite elementary and secondary schools in communities where thousands of students have taken refuge to escape the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, according to the archdiocese's superintendent of Catholic schools.

Father William F. Maestri made the announcement at a Sept. 7 meeting, which drew an overflow crowd to the Catholic Life Center auditorium in Baton Rouge. Planned for Catholic school administrators and teachers, the meeting also drew some parents anxious to hear any news about their schools.

Father Maestri also advised parents they could enroll their children in the existing Catholic schools nearest them or consider home schooling their children, especially if their original school in the Archdiocese of New Orleans will reopen in the near future.

In the wake of the massive destruction of Hurricane Katrina, the Archdiocese of New Orleans launched a satellite office in Baton Rouge to make key decisions about restoring social services and rebuilding schools and churches.

All 108 elementary and secondary schools in the New Orleans Archdiocese have been closed because of Hurricane Katrina, although church officials expected some schools that sustained less severe damage to reopen as soon as electrical and water services were restored over the next several weeks.

"This is simply an unprecedented thing that has happened to us," Father Maestri told the more than 700 people at the meeting. "We do not have the textbook written to tell us how to do all of this."

The Catholic schools system in the Archdiocese of New Orleans educates 50,000 students. Father Maestri said the most pressing needs are in Baton Rouge because most of the hurricane victims have relocated to the state capital, which is 80 miles north of New Orleans.

Other areas with a considerable number of evacuees are Lafayette, Shreveport, Alexandria and Lakes Charles, La., Houston and Atlanta.

The satellite schools will need to be staffed by qualified teachers from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and hundreds of those teachers were evacuated to those areas.

Father Maestri praised Baton Rouge diocesan officials for their willingness to consider expanding enrollment and going to a system whereby students will come to school on early and late schedules.

"Many of our children have enrolled in local schools, and we are endeavoring to find out where they are," Father Maestri said. "We believe the biggest concentration is here in the Baton Rouge area."

He mentioned that some students were as far away as California and Utah.

Father Maestri said high school seniors should not be overly concerned because every child who attends another school in a new locality will receive a diploma from his or her original school as long as all state educational requirements are met.

Satellite schools in different cities would use either vacant facilities, portable classrooms or an existing campus. In the case of sharing an existing campus, the satellite school would go to an early and late schedule.

Father Maestri and Louisiana Catholic school officials have agreed on a general principle to give preference to those students whose schools face the longest recovery.

Father Maestri said schools expected to be closed only for 30 days can easily make up the time by expanding class hours, going to Saturday morning classes, eliminating some holidays and adding instructional days in June or July.

The priest also advised parents -- especially those with children in schools that may be closed only for a month -- that they could seek home-schooling materials from the state education department.

"More and more we will put flesh on this skeleton," Father Maestri said. "There has been a tremendous outpouring and support for all of us. We have seen so many negative images, that often we don't see the finer angels and random acts of kindness."

Father Maestri teaches philosophy at Notre Dame Seminary and has had to deal with the meaning and purpose of natural disasters.

"People ask me, 'Why do bad things happen to good people?' and I say 'I don't know,'" Father Maestri said. "But I have a better question. What do good people do when bad things happen to them? Good people get generous, get heroic, respond to the finer angels within themselves."

Father Maestri said the National Catholic Educational Association was launching a campaign called "Student To Student" in which every student in Catholic schools across the U.S. will be asked to donate at least $1 to support Catholic education in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Father Maestri urged teachers to remain upbeat and hopeful, even though they do not know about their futures.

"There's been a great deal of talk about whether or not we are going to have a New Orleans," Father Maestri said. "That issue isn't even an issue for us. We are going back (to New Orleans) to educate students, and there is nothing more certain than our commitment to that. This is a defining moment for us as a church and as an archdiocese. It will call forth the best that is within us."

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

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