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Back to School

Youngest hurricane survivors ready to hit the books

By Karen Fanning | August 16 , 2006

Fourth graders listen to their teacher
Fourth graders listen to their teacher, Mianca Delatte, at Fischer Elementary on the first day of school for charter schools in New Orleans, August 7, 2006. (Photo: Alex Brandon/AP Wide World)

August 16, 2006

When Leina McQuigg boarded the bus for school on August 14, she had the normal back-to-school jitters. It was the first day of the new school year, almost one year since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

“The only thing I was nervous about was the first day of high school,” says the ninth-grader at Slidell High School in Slidell, Louisiana. Slidell is a suburb of New Orleans.

One year ago, Leina had a lot more on her mind. She was one of hundreds of thousands of students who lost their schools to Hurricane Katrina. While enrollment is still down at many schools, students from Biloxi, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana, are strapping on their backpacks and heading back to the classrooms.

Before Hurricane Katrina, 60,000 students attended New Orleans schools. Only about 30,000 of those students have returned. Only about 50 of the city’s 125 schools will be open this year. Already, overcrowding is a problem.

A Rocky Year

When Katrina struck Slidell, the hurricane spared Leina’s house, but her school was flooded with three feet of water. A week later, Leina moved to Arkansas to live with her sister.

When she returned home last January, she and her former classmates from Slidell Junior High had to share their school with students from another middle school across town. In five short months, much had changed.

“We went to school during the first half of the day, and they went to school the second half,” she says. “Classes were short, just 30 minutes. It was harder because I had to learn the same amount of stuff in half the time. I had to change my schedule because a couple of my teachers left and didn’t come back. It was weird.”

A New Beginning

Although Gulfport, Mississippi, was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, Abigayle Lista’s school suffered only minor damage. In fact, Orange Grove Elementary temporarily served as a shelter for families whose homes had been destroyed by Katrina.

Now, a year later, repairs are still being made to the school’s roof, which was damaged during the storm. Ten-year-old Abigayle is happy to report that life is almost back to normal.

“It feels good that I still have my school and my community together,” says the fifth-grader. “There’s a lot of hope and faith.”

Dominiqueca Lewis, too, is hopeful about the future as she begins the new school year at Thomas Jefferson Senior High in Gretna, Louisiana.

It was one year ago that she and her family fled their hometown before Katrina arrived. The 13-year-old, along with her mother, father, and older sister, escaped to Dallas, Texas, where they lived in a two-bedroom apartment for several months while their house was being renovated.

Although Dominiqueca made friends easily at her school in Dallas, she was thrilled to return home. She is happy to be back in the company of her old friends.

“I feel great,” she says. “You are comfortable with them. They know you well and you know them well, so there’s nothing to worry about.”

Back Where She Belongs

After the hurricane, Leina remembers being nervous as she made her way through a crowd of strangers on her first day of school in Arkansas. Now, as she roams the hallways at Slidell High School, she welcomes the sight of familiar faces.

“It was nice to be able to see everybody again,” she says about her first day at Slidell High School. “It was like a reunion with all of our friends who had left and are just now coming back.”

About the Author

Karen Fanning is a contributing writer for Scholastic News Online.

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