Schooling Katrina's Kids

By Glenn Cook

Terrance Johnson was a star at his Canal Street high school in the Orleans Parish School District. Scarlett Thiele spent afternoons working with other theater students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Warren Johnson taught English, speech, and television production at McDonogh 35 High School in the city’s Ninth Ward.

Then, in a few short days, their worlds turned upside down.

Today, Terrance and Scarlett are just two of the 372,000 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast at the end of August in one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Warren Johnson (no relation to Terrance) lost his home and his job, but thankfully not his family.

“I’m grateful. I really am,” says Johnson, who now teaches ninth- and 10th-grade English at Houston’s Yates High School. “The strangest thing is being on the receiving end of someone else’s help. That’s not the way I was raised. I was always raised to help other people.”

Across the nation, Johnson and students like Scarlett and Terrance found scores of school districts that were willing to help. And in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which came ashore between Houston and New Orleans in September, districts have done just that despite an unprecedented series of tests -- of resources, of character, of faith.

Among the 46 states that took in students, none was affected more heavily than Texas, which continues to serve more than 40,000 evacuees in its public schools. Houston and its surrounding districts received more than 20,000, while almost 5,000 remain on the class rolls in the Dallas area.

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