TOPICS > Education

Rebuilding a District

April 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, sit down on your seat.

JOHN MERROW: Seven months after Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi, Dave Taylor (ph) is still getting used to his bus route.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only way we know the streets on the beach now is, the main streets, like Waveland Avenue and Coleman (ph), they have spray-painted on the cement walls. People were putting up makeshift signs, letting you know what street it is and stuff.

JOHN MERROW: A landscape he once knew so well is now completely new terrain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have nothing left on the beachfront, nothing. We had a beautiful beachfront. But everything is gone.

JOHN MERROW: Before the storm, Bay Saint Louis was a beautiful beachside community, defined by its many historic homes and charming downtown.

Today, seven months after the storm hit, the historic downtown is all but gone. Most of the town’s infrastructure is nonexistent. Basic necessities are hard to come by. Experts estimate that roughly 60 percent of the homes here were either damaged or completely destroyed.

Almost everyone who lives here now lives in a trailer. However, within the chaos and destruction, members of this community have created a pocket of stability.

Despite enormous obstacles, the Bay Saint Louis-Waveland School District reopened on November 7, more than two months after Katrina struck. Today, five of the six schools in the district sit in trailers in the shadow of their former buildings. Schools like Second Street Elementary have become the glue that holds this fractured community together.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Good morning. May I have your attention, please, for the morning announcements?

JOHN MERROW: When principal Ricky Reed returned here, he faced an entirely new set of challenges.

RICKY REED, PRINCIPAL, SECOND STREET ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: You are taking count on how many kids are living in tents, how many kids are homeless, how many kids are living — are — are sleeping in cars, or whatever the case may be. And all those stories you hear about kids sleeping in tents and cars, all that’s true.

JOHN MERROW: Reed and his staff are forced to improvise with limited resources. The library is one trailer and consists of piles of books, many of which were donated. In art class, students make collages showing their Katrina experiences.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the wave coming over their house. Here is a cat that survived in a tree. Isn’t that great a little kitty, the stripes?

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: … on a branch.

We’re doing lots of different paper techniques, because we are having to work with what we have available. And what we mostly have donations of is correction paper.

JOHN MERROW: In gym class, remnants of Katrina are unavoidable.

KENNY GUESS, COACH: Look out. Nice.

This is a little oasis in the middle of just a vast amount of debris and destruction.

JOHN MERROW: Coach Kenny Guess’ gym class plays on a small patch of dirt.

KENNY GUESS: So, I’m concerned about them having to run back into the areas where it’s — it’s still pretty bad. These kids need to play. They — you know, they go home to an areas that’s full of debris, trailer parks. So, this is probably all they get.

JOHN MERROW: Teachers use Katrina as a learning tool. This fifth-grade class is taking a field trip to the destroyed Bay Saint Louis Bridge that once was the gateway to other towns and cities in the Gulf.

DEBRA WILSON, TEACHER: How many minor planets are there?

STUDENTS: Thousands.

DEBRA WILSON: Thousands.

JOHN MERROW: With virtually no modern technology — after all, the schools just got phones — teachers like Debra Wilson have had to alter their teaching style.

DEBRA WILSON: Now we do all lesson plans — instead of on the computer, we do all of it by hand. Everything is done manually again.

RICKY REED: It has been hard on a lot of teachers. You know, I mean, they are starting all over. We have veteran teachers that have been teaching, you know, many, many, many years. And it’s — you know, everybody is on the same level right now.

You know, it is new textbooks and, you know, scrounging whatever you can. It is an adjustment for everybody. It is definitely a fresh start.

JOHN MERROW: It also a new start for students.

RICKY REED: OK. We are going to put you in Ms. Wilson’s class.

JOHN MERROW: Before Katrina, Second Street Elementary had about 360 students. Today, about half have returned, but, almost every day, another new student registers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And, Natalie (ph), you were with Ms. Wilson prior to the storm?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was in Mr. Tench (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, OK.

JOHN MERROW: Practically every student here has a painful Katrina story.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That is…

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We had to evacuate out of our house and — but we had to swim. And the water was seven feet high.

JOHN MERROW: Counselor Barbara Crop spends her days listening to the students’ stories. But it is not just students who have stories to tell.

DEBRA WILSON: One storm put me on public assistance. And, I mean, it’s — that is a blow to your pride.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One-fourth.

JOHN MERROW: Of the 148 teachers who have returned to the Bay Saint Louis-Waveland School District, more than half are living in trailers. Second Street teacher Angela Gill is one of them.

ANGELA GILL, TEACHER: Steven (ph), stop.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: … talking about?

ANGELA GILL: You’re not killing mosquitoes.

JOHN MERROW: Since Katrina, she has been living in a 28-by-10-foot FEMA trailer with her husband and three children.

ANGELA GILL: There’s one bed — you know, one bed. And my husband sleeps in that when he is home. And one of the kids sleeps in that.

I sleep on the couch. And, then, we have two bunks. And two of the kids sleep in the bunks. My co-workers have the same situation. I’m not the only one living in a little FEMA trailer with three kids.

RICKY REED: My steps were right here. And my first floor stopped, of course, at the top of the pilings.

JOHN MERROW: Principal Ricky Reed also lost everything.

RICKY REED: And my truck was about 50 yards over there in the ditch, you know, still a lot of stuff that — that I find and see that’s mine.

Losing everything, losing my house, being homeless three months, bouncing around from house to house, staying with people, staying with friends, sleeping in my truck, sometimes, it was tough. That was three hard months.

JOHN MERROW: Reed now lives in a FEMA-supplied trailer parked in his ex-wife’s front yard.

RICKY REED: It’s tough to even just wake up in the morning and — and — and keep going. But I’m — but school to me has been like therapy for me. I have always loved my job. But it means more to me now than it ever has before.

ANGELA GILL: Report. Put the touch points on those numbers.

JOHN MERROW: Work has become a much needed refuge from life at home for much of the Second Street staff.

ANGELA GILL: To come to school is a blessing, because there is nothing wrong when we come inside the doors. I get to forget from 7:30 until 2:30 that everything outside of this classroom is a bunch of debris, that, you know, I don’t have a home.

JOHN MERROW: And, according to some teachers, school provides a much needed escape for the students as well.

KELLY HEITZMAN, TEACHER: We have had more parents bring their kids late, because they cried, and said: I don’t care if I feel sick. I want to go to school.

And that says a lot. I mean, we — that just makes my day when — when they come do that.

JOHN MERROW: But Teacher Kelly Heitzman worries about the road ahead.

KELLY HEITZMAN: You worry about long-term mental health. You know, are they going to be OK? You know, because you don’t know what is going to happen to these kids. You don’t know. Are they going to have enough money to rebuild? And they listen to their parents’ conversations. You can’t hide it in a FEMA trailer. So, you really don’t know what they’re thinking and not telling us.

JOHN MERROW: Adjusting to life after Katrina, teachers here at Second Street Elementary and throughout the district have had to alter their expectations in the classroom.

BARBARA CROP, COUNSELOR: If you think about where they are living, where do they go to study? Where do they go to be quiet to read a book, which is their assignment? Where do they go to do that?

DEBRA WILSON: We’re trying not to give homework. We give spelling homework, and that’s about it. And we try to allot enough time that they can study in class.

JOHN MERROW: With no homework, preparing students for the Mississippi state test in May is a challenge.

KELLY HEITZMAN: They have got so much on their mind. You worry, are they going to be able to put that aside and focus on the test, which I think they will.

KATHLEEN JENKINS, TEACHER: Or just concentration. The concentration isn’t there. Now, we have certainly taught everything that we have been told to teach. And we have drilled and done games and you name it, we…

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One-on-one.

KATHLEEN JENKINS: One-on-one.

JOHN MERROW: Surprisingly, teachers insist that, despite all the challenges, there is a silver lining. The old school building had one bathroom and one water fountain per floor. The FEMA classrooms have modern amenities.

CAROL JASPER, TEACHER: You get thirsty, you come and get your own water. The pencil sharpeners are over there.

Well, the classrooms here are absolutely wonderful. With the bathrooms in each classroom, the discipline problems are almost down to none, because they get to go one at a time, when they want to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We’re going to find out what happened. Something…

JOHN MERROW: Since a higher percentage of teachers have returned, compared to students, the teacher-student ratio is low, leading many teachers to combine their classrooms. As a result, students are getting more one-on-one instruction. But this situation probably will not last.

The Bay Saint Louis-Waveland School District faces huge budget woes. District superintendent Kim Stasny is working hard just to keep the school system up and running.

KIM STASNY, SUPERINTENDENT, BAY SAINT LOUIS-WAVELAND SCHOOL DISTRICT: Our tax base is gone. Sixty percent of Bay Saint Louis washed out, 92 percent of Waveland. So, those are tax bases for the school district. And the — the money is not coming in from the taxes. And it’s not coming in from reimbursements. Our insurance is still hanging out there without closure. And we are in a very precarious financial situation.

JOHN MERROW: A $10 million loan from the Mississippi Development Bank enabled Dr. Stasny to open the schools after Katrina. So, far the Bay Saint Louis-Waveland School District is operating with $3.7 million from FEMA, $5 million from insurance companies, and $13 million from the U.S. Department of Education.

But Superintendent Stasny believes, she will still be 14 to $17 million shy of what it will take to fix the district.

KIM STASNY: How do I guess how many more students are going to come in? How many teachers do I need for next year? Will there be money to pay these teachers, if I bring them in? Do I hire everybody back? Do I lay teachers off? It is truly a dilemma.

JOHN MERROW: Another challenge is determining whether the school district is going to repair the damaged buildings or rebuild completely.

Experts like Mike Womack, deputy director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, continue to assess the damage.

MIKE WOMACK, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, MISSISSIPPI EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: You would think, by just driving by and looking at it, you would say, well, that — that building obviously needs to be demolished, and you need to move on.

But you — you can’t always tell that, until you actually get in and determine whether or not the building is structurally sound.

JOHN MERROW: If it is determined that more than 50 percent of the school building was damaged, than Dr. Stasny will have the option to rebuild from the ground up.

KIM STASNY: It would have been so much easier, almost, for my buildings to have just all collapsed. And then there wouldn’t be months on months on months of assessing and evaluating the condition of my buildings.

MIKE WOMACK: It is frustrating for all of us that we can’t get money out there quicker. But we have an obligation that we’re fair to local government, that we don’t give them more than what the law says that we can.

KIM STASNY: This was a special-ed office, I think.

This was my assistant’s office.

JOHN MERROW: Dr. Stasny believes the schools could remain in trailers for years to come. Principal Ricky Reed knows the road ahead is a long one.

RICKY REED: We need our students back. I want them to come back. We need our — I would just like Bay Saint Louis and Waveland to be built back.

All right. Have a good day. Be careful now, all right?

It was really a good place, good families, you know? And the kids are really great. We had a great thing here. And I just want it back. It doesn’t have to be better than it was. I just wish it was as good as it was. And it is just going to take rebuilding homes and getting our students back. And that’s what I want. You know, I want my students back.

RICKY REED: All right, guys, have a good day. Bye-bye. We will see you in morning.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: All right.

JOHN MERROW: Ricky Reed and his colleagues are hoping their efforts to rebuild the school system will withstand the next hurricane season, which is only two months away.

With most of the town operating in trailers, the damage could be even more catastrophic than Katrina, if another hurricane hits Bay Saint Louis.