Some Gulf Coast students adjust to new schools

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 29, 2005

When Hurricane Katrina strong-armed her way into the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, she destroyed communities and displaced literally thousands of families.

Some of those families have found their way to Ironton and now some of the children displaced by Hurricane Katrina are enrolling in area schools. Not only are they coping with the disaster that sent them here, they are also learning a new educational system and making new friends. And educators here are getting a look at the differences between their educational system and those in other places.

New faces

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Ironton City Schools recieved the most new students. A total of 11 children have enrolled in the city system: Two at the high school, one at the junior high, five at the middle school, one at Whitwell and two at West Ironton. Ironton Catholic Schools have recieved three new students, Dawson-Bryant Elementary has gotten two new students and Rock Hill Elementary has one new student.

"I'm pleased to be able to help," St. Joseph High School Principal Jim Mains said. "They've gone through a horrific experience and now they're trying to get their lives back together and it's been heartwarming to see Ironton welcome them."

Mains said CAO officials have told him other students may be on the way to the area in the near future.

'Just different'

India Dregory moved to a new home in Ironton two weeks ago and started classes at Ironton High School Monday. In all likelihood, she will graduate from IHS this spring - something that never entered her mind when she started classes this year in New Orleans. How's the transition from south to north?

"It's alright," she said. "It's different. It's culture shock."

She came to Ironton with her mother, Lisa; sister Paris; and three brothers, Austin, Gianti and Gianni. Austin and Paris attend Ironton Middle School. Gianti and Gianni are not old enough for school yet.

The transition from Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans and Ironton High School has been a transition from big city to small town, from one academic process to another.

"I'm used to a big school," Dregory said. "We had maybe 1,500 students, maybe 2,000." Compare that to Ironton's 520 students.

"You guys have the smallest lunches I've ever seen," she laughed. Not the portions of the food, she means, but the number of students eating at one time. The cafeteria at IHS is smaller, the students fewer - and here in Ironton, a closed campus means no leaving the school grounds during the day.

But IHS offers more electives.

"We took the basic courses to graduate. Here, you've got computers, stuff like that," she said.

By Dregory's account, Buckeye students work harder, and the teachers are more demanding. Classes in New Orleans were more fun, she said, with more interaction between students and teachers.

Dregory was supposed to graduate in January as part of an early dismissal program at her old high school. She had already taken the Louisiana graduation test and had passed all five parts. Moving to Ohio, she has found that she must stay in school all year and graduate in May. And to graduate from an Ohio school, she will need to take the Ohio Graduation Test. She has already taken the practice OGT once and did not pass it. Given the difference between the two schools, she figures the OGT will be harder than its Louisiana counterpart.

Another change Dregory has found: Most of her Ironton classmates are, well, white. In New Orleans, blacks made up a larger percentage of the population.

"I feel like I'm in the minority, now," she said.

While she can understand her classmates, some of them have found her southern accent a bit difficult. "I feel like I'm overseas somewhere and I'm a foreign student."

Dregory said she had made plans for what was left of her senior year in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina ruined those plans.

"I miss my friends. We were all supposed to graduate together," she said. Now, she knows where only one of them is.

An educator's story

Although it may sound like a lot of children for a small district to absorb and place in one day, Ironton Superintendent Dean Nance said 11 students enrolling in one day is not that unusual. Ironton Middle School Principal Kim Imes Brown agreed. She recieved five new students in one day but said that's not a record.

"It doesn't happen every day but there have been times when we have gotten five students," she said. "It's not overwhelming."

Brown said one consideration in having these new students is that typically, incoming students already know at least one person in the district, someone with whom they are already familiar. Coming from so far away, the Katrina evacuees are literally strangers in a strange land.

"We've all thought about their welfare as far as acclimating themselves. Our community is much different. We've tried to connect them with positive young people and good role models. We've tried to let them know about things in the community- sporting events and libraries," Brown said. "We're working to help them establish connections."

Brown said they are making friends quickly although there have been some adjustments.

"Where they were living before, there was mass transit," Brown said. "If they missed the bus to get to school, another one came along in 5 or 10 minutes. But here, the school bus comes by once in the morning, so there's that. And some of the kids were not used to changing classes. They had one teacher all day long and here they change classes."

In spite of what they've been through, Brown said, the Katrina children appear to be making themselves at home.

"They're wonderful and they're bringing good things to our building," Brown said. "Children are children. They just need to be looked after and loved."