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Flood-Ravaged Schools In Louisiana Try To Get Students Back On Track


All right, parents listening, you know this is the case. Already, kids around the country are back to school. This is an annual rite of passage. But in flood-ravaged Louisiana, that ritual was disrupted by disaster. Schools are coping with a whole new set of challenges as they try to come back. NPR's Debbie Elliott takes us to Livingston Parish, where classes resume today.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Livingston Parish School superintendent Rick Wentzel gives me a tour of flood damage in his dad's pickup truck, on loan because Wentzel's house flooded, and his vehicles were swamped.

RICK WENTZEL: I stayed in the shelter I think it was eight days total.

ELLIOTT: Now he's living in a camper and, as he says, busting a gut to get one of the largest school systems in the state back in business after the catastrophic flood.

WENTZEL: See, the landscape - told you, it's changed.

ELLIOTT: He drives down a busy state highway, where for miles strip malls, fast food restaurants, health clinics, even a Wal-Mart are still closed, their soaked contents piled along the roadway. We come to a school.

WENTZEL: This is Southside Junior High. This is one of our schools that was impacted. They had 6 and a half feet of water.

ELLIOTT: Fifteen of the school district's campuses flooded, and six are still out of commission. Back at his office, Wentzel says regardless, the district's 26,000 students should be in class.

WENTZEL: We've got to get back in school. That's important for us. It's important for our families. They're trying to get back to their lives. It's easier for them to be able to do that when the kids are back in school.

ELLIOTT: Livingston Parish is just outside Baton Rouge. Three-quarters of the homes here are considered a total loss. Wentzel says getting back to school can help jumpstart the recovery. In the last week, bus drivers have scouted their new routes, finding ways around washed-out bridges, and schools prepared to serve double duty.

BETH JONES: I'm Beth Jones. I'm Live Oak High School principal.

KELLY JONES: And I'm Kelly Jones, principal at Denham Springs High School.

ELLIOTT: Denham Springs has moved 6 miles up the highway to the Live Oak campus.

K. JONS: Yeah, we've moved in together.

ELLIOTT: The two principals happen to be married to each other. And this new setup is called platooning.

K. JONS: Well, Live Oak High School's going to come in in the morning. They're doing the early shift. And they're going to warm the place up for the main event that comes in after lunch. And so...

B. JONES: And he's going to make sure that all of his teachers and students behave so that my campus is still as good as it was...

K. JONS: Exactly...

B. JONES: ...When they came in.

ELLIOTT: Joking aside, there are challenges in orchestrating two sessions of high school involving more than 3,000 students, most hit by disaster.

K. JONS: They're coming back with a lot more on their shoulders than they left with three weeks ago, when they went home that final day. They've seen a lot. They've been through a lot.


ELLIOTT: Anxious students and parents came last week to pick up their schedules and walk the unfamiliar hallways.

DENISCHA: It's a lot.

SHERMICA JUPITER: (Laughter) Overwhelming.


ELLIOTT: Denischa Jupiter is a senior from Denham Springs High School here with her mother, Shermica, who calls the whole experience quite a shock.

JUPITER: We lost everything. Yeah, so we're living with my mom now. It's 16 of us in a three-bedroom home.

ELLIOTT: Now Denischa is trying to finish her final year of high school in both a new home and a new school.

DENISCHA: It's going to be difficult, but I'm going to get used to it until I get back to my regular school.

ELLIOTT: Susan and Ross Guitreau are here with their 15-year-old son Dylan, sorting through boxes of donated school supplies to get what he needs.

DYLAN: I'm going to need a folder.

SUSAN GUITREAU: That's what I didn't know.

ELLIOTT: Susan Guitreau is trying to navigate the new setting.

S. GUITREAU: Confusing (laughter), so inexperienced (laughter), and just hard.

ELLIOTT: The family is particularly concerned about Dylan's schedule.

ROSS GUITREAU: What'd it say, an hour and a half?

DYLAN: Hour and a half bus ride.

ELLIOTT: Band practice starts at 8 a.m, and the bus won't get him back home until 7 at night.

S. GUITREAU: It's OK. It's going to be all right, right?

ELLIOTT: Superintendent Rick Wentzel says it might be rough-going at first, but getting back to school is an important step toward getting back to where things are all right. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Livingston, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.