Dispersed and Unequal

New Orleans children are abandoned again, this time in Baton Rouge schools

Before Ms. Joseph has a moment to attend to a reporter's questions, two teachers rush into the office, and a panting boy comes in after them, all to report the same news. Some boys wearing the uniform of a different school entered a classroom and sat down. When challenged by the teacher, they ran out, turning over furniture and banging on lockers. According to some of the students, the intruders said, "We came to take our school back."

At Scotlandville, all but three of the teachers are from Orleans and surrounding parishes, and they too are stressed and displaced by the storm. They have been dropped into a uniquely tough working environment. "Because the school was closed down, we had to do it all," says Ms. Joseph, who was promoted from an assistant principal post at Baton Rouge's Sherwood Middle. "This building was a shell. We had to get furniture in here, get supplies for the students. It still needs a lot of renovations done to it. Painting, some minor structural things, the wiring, the intercom system." Class offerings—"the basics," she says—include keyboarding and home ec.

Michael Bowden, 11, Genaro Gutierrez, 16, Joel Bowden, 13, and Marshan Bowden, 15, chill outside the River Center shelter in September.
photo: Anya Kamenetz
Michael Bowden, 11, Genaro Gutierrez, 16, Joel Bowden, 13, and Marshan Bowden, 15, chill outside the River Center shelter in September.

As of a "warm-body count" on September 28, of the 8,000 students who have registered in Baton Rouge as "homeless and transient" due to Katrina, fewer than 4,500 are showing up to class. The majority of those 4,500are being folded into schools like Westdale, with a ready-made community and resources in place to support them. But 1,100, primarily those who first landed in the city's shelters, have been assigned to the two newly created schools, the one in Scotlandville and Mayfair Elementary. That means that the poorest and neediest of the overwhelmingly black New Orleans students are going to school in decrepit buildings, where a newly assembled teaching staff has had to perform a year's worth of curriculum and schedule planning in two weeks.

Some older New Orleans kids from the same population may not be going to school at all. "The majority showing up are at the elementary school level," says Ms. St. Julien at the superintendent's office. "I'm from New Orleans so I have my own personal opinion as to why that is the case. Young adults may have been displaced from their families and gone to the Superdome," she says, and may not be answering to parental authority now. "Parents of young children, once they get their kids in school, can then start going to work and doing what they need to do. It's my personal guess that East Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and Houston are going to get a boost on the high-school level in a month, because then they'll be truant."

Outside the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge on a hot Tuesday morning, two younger boys are horsing around while two older teenagers load a cooler into a car trunk. Marshan Bowden, 15; and his little brother Michael, 11; and cousin Joel, 13, all in clean white undershirts, are seeing off a new friend, Genaro Gutierrez, 16. They met in the shelter while playing football, and now Gutierrez is going back home to Metairie, in Jefferson Parish. When asked why they are not in school, Marshan shakes his head. "I don't want to. I just don't want to go. Just don't." His cousin pipes up, "You're scared of the kids there!" earning a halfhearted swat.

The Bowden boys, their mother, and an aunt rode out the storm in New Orleans at a Days Inn hotel downtown, then waited about a day for a bus at the convention center. "It was beaucoup trash in there," Marshan, who wears a pink plastic rosary around his neck and has a multicolored version of a Yankees cap on, says. When asked if he saw any fighting, he says no. "People were just sitting, waiting for the buses." Their bus took them to Arkansas, where they stayed for not quite two weeks. They even attended a school there for a few days, where "we were the only black kids," says Joel. Then, for some reason, they were sent back down to the shelter here.

Marshan had just started as a ninth-grader at Joseph S. Clark Senior High in Mid-City. He said he liked school all right and especially football: "I was on the line to play middle linebacker." He thinks he'd rather wait to resume school when he can go back home, whenever that is.

In the days after Hurricane Katrina, the images of destitute black families walking out of town along railroad tracks irresistibly recalled Reconstruction. Now these kids' resettlement experiences invoke Brown v. Board of Education. The Katrina evacuation is the largest ever forced removal of African American students from a failed school system. The only problem is, it's unclear whether the systems they are entering will do better by them than the ones they left.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school district just happens to be the site of the longest-running school desegregation lawsuit in U.S. history. Filed in 1956 against the Justice Department on behalf of a small group of students and signed on to by Thurgood Marshall when he was with the NAACP, the suit languished in the court of a segregationist judge for two and a half decades. His successor, U.S. District Judge John Parker, ordered busing to begin in 1981, and his was hardly the last word. In a story that has become familiar all over the country, white students quickly left the district, bound for Catholic and Episcopal schools (Louisiana has the highest proportion of students in private schools of any state) or simply headed for the suburbs. Baker and Zachary, to the north, broke away to form their own school districts, which have higher ratings and higher per-pupil expenditures.

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