A new twist on transfers; Districts waiving admission rules for displaced children

By Joshua Benton and Toya Lynn Stewart
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Sunday morning, when Demetrice Nora fled New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward with her family, she only packed clothes for a few days.

But on Wednesday – seeing the destruction back home – she enrolled her daughters at Larson Elementary in Grand Prairie. It’s the first step toward a permanent relocation, she said.

“My main priority is to focus on my kids and getting them stable,” Ms. Nora said of daughters Kinyatta and Gilda. “I don’t want them to miss too much school.”

Among the hundreds of thousands who’ve fled New Orleans, there’s a growing recognition that they won’t be heading back home anytime soon. For those who’ve arrived in Texas, that means finding a school for their children.

As with most things about Hurricane Katrina, officials don’t know all the details – like how many new students have already enrolled, or how many more will come. But state officials expect the number to be in the thousands.

“We’re just trying to get them in school as fast as we can,” said Toni Gallego, homeless liaison for the Irving schools, which had received enrollment inquiries from more than a dozen families.

Dallas school officials expect hundreds of new students. The district, like many others in the area, is waiving some of the traditional requirements for new students – like immunization records and transcripts – to enroll them faster. Those records “are either underwater or the school’s gone,” Dallas spokesman Donald Claxton said.

The district plans to set up shop at the Reunion Arena refugee center Friday to help students figure out what schools they should be attending.

Most large school districts in North Texas, including Mesquite, Richardson, Garland, Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Carroll, reported taking in students from Louisiana. Most said they would take students immediately.

Other districts, such as Plano, either asked students to stay away until next week, or said they would be enrolled only if space is available, as was the case with elementary-age students in Highland Park.

Arlington schools have already enrolled almost 30 new students, district officials said, and more are on the way. Nelva Hardin, a coordinator for the district’s Families in Transition program, said one woman with whom she spoke had 40 people living in her house, including several school-aged children.

“Those poor kiddos have been displaced and their emotional needs should be first,” said Susan Timms, principal at Miller Elementary in Arlington, where five new students enrolled Wednesday.

Terragon Smith had already planned to relocate his family from New Orleans to Cedar Hill in about a month. Katrina sped the family’s move. But their belongings stayed behind.

“I don’t know what’s left there, and it’s not like I can go back and get what’s left,” Mr. Smith said. “I have the most important parts of my life here – my wife, kids and my family.”

On Tuesday, he enrolled fifth-grader Saliq and second-grader Tariq at a Cedar Hill elementary school. The boys start school today.

The biggest impacts are likely to be in Houston. Its relative closeness to the state line meant it was already home to many people fleeing storm damage. And Louisiana officials announced Wednesday they would transport all those stranded in the Superdome to Houston’s Astrodome – bringing another influx of thousands of children.

A half-dozen students showed up in the small Port Neches-Groves school district in southeast Texas on Wednesday, and district officials expect that number to climb in the coming days. Port Neches has some of the strongest Louisiana ties of any Texas city. Large numbers of Cajuns, chasing refinery jobs, moved to Port Neches and the surrounding Golden Triangle area in the mid-1900s.

“There’s no one I know here who doesn’t have kinfolk in Louisiana,” Superintendent Lani Randall said.

State officials did their part to welcome the students Wednesday, informing superintendents that they could enroll most under federal regulations for homeless students. That means they will automatically be eligible for free school lunches. Students will not have to provide proof of residency in the school district to attend classes.

In most districts, the cost of educating the new students will be funded through a small bump in state money. As with other children, schools will be reimbursed based on how long students remain enrolled.

Some schools will get more textbooks to supply the newcomers, and in some cases they will be able to exceed state class-size limits.

The displaced students come in all sorts. Many fleeing New Orleans were poor and lost all their belongings in the storm.

On the other end of the spectrum is Morris Hyman, a New Orleans attorney staying with relatives in Richardson. His two children, 11th-grader Elizabeth and seventh-grader Ben, have attended the private Isidore Newman School since kindergarten. Now they’re trying to find new schools – for a few weeks or a few months.

Since she was already in the area, Elizabeth toured Southern Methodist University on Monday. In her tour group were five other New Orleans natives, all in the same boat.

“It’s going to be pretty strange being around all new people,” Elizabeth said Wednesday, an hour after visiting Lake Highlands High for the first time. She liked it.

Back in New Orleans, she was in the school chorus and did theater. At Lake Highlands, she’ll be able to join the chorus, but she said it’s probably too late to join the cast of the first school play. But there will be more plays.

“I think I’d like to do the musical this winter,” she said. “If I’m still here.”

Staff writers Katherine Leal Unmuth, Laurie Fox, Tawnell D. Hobbs and Kristen Holland contributed to this story.