[StBernard] St. Bernard schools aim to leave disaster behind

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Mon Aug 13 19:20:37 EDT 2007

St. Bernard schools aim to leave disaster behind
Renovated sites are ready
Monday, August 13, 2007
By Bob Warren
St. Bernard bureau
In a parish nearly wiped out by Hurricane Katrina, not thinking about
recovery might seem an odd idea.

But as the St. Bernard Parish public school district prepares to welcome
about 4,000 students Wednesday for the start of another post-Katrina school
year, that's precisely what its top administrator hopes for.

"The big push this year is to get past recovery and get back to what we do
best," Superintendent Doris Voitier said recently. "I'll fight the battles
with FEMA and the insurance companies. The teachers will teach."

Not that hurricane recovery will ever be far away. On every level, life in
St. Bernard Parish is about trying to get back what the hurricane destroyed
on Aug. 29, 2005.

Across the parish, houses and businesses remain empty, storm-battered
shells. Some families are still in cramped trailers. Others have left to
start lives in other places, a diaspora that has slashed the parish's
pre-storm population of 67,000 by more than half.

"We know the pressures; we know the challenges," Voitier said. "These are
our kids -- we know what they're going through."

But, she said, conditions are better than last year and will continue to

To that end, three renovated schools will fully come on line this year to
accommodate the growing enrollment, which has risen from 334 in the weeks
right after the hurricane to about 3,700 last school year to an anticipated
4,000 this fall.

J.F. Gauthier Elementary in Poydras will open with 500 students in
pre-kindergarten through fifth grades after a $7 million renovation. N.P.
Trist Middle in Meraux, which opened midway through last year after a $13
million renovation, will have 550 students in sixth and seventh grades this
year. And C.F. Rowley in Chalmette, which underwent $6 million in
renovations, will have 150 students in the parish's alternative learning

Those schools join Andrew Jackson Elementary in Chalmette, with 1,400 to
1,500 students, and Chalmette High School, which expects about 1,300
students in grades eight to 12.

The parish's lone Catholic school, Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Chalmette,
will begin classes Tuesday. Principal Sharon Coll said enrollment will be
around 400, 80 more than last year.

The parish's only private school, Lynn Oaks School in Caernarvon, opened
Aug. 2 with 186 students, about 18 percent more than last year, school
officials said.

Voitier and other administrators said the growing enrollment will be a

"As more people return to the area, we'll keep growing," Coll said.

She said fewer of her school's students this year will be coming from
outside St. Bernard Parish. Last year, a number of students came from St.
Tammany Parish, she said.

Also, Coll added, more students this year live in refurbished homes and
fewer live in trailers, "so that's a nice change."

Voitier said the state's Road Home program continues to hold the key for
parish schools.

"I know we've been saying this for over a year, but when the Road Home money
really, really starts flowing -- I think you'll see a big increase," Voitier

Whether the district's enrollment will ever approach its pre-storm level of
8,800 students, no one can say.

But the School Board is forging ahead with multimillion-dollar plans to
demolish and rebuild W. Smith Jr. Elementary in Violet and Joseph Davies
Elementary in Meraux, to renovate St. Bernard High School for use as a
middle school and to convert Lacoste Elementary in Chalmette into a high
school extension that would house ninth-graders. Some of those facilities
could be ready for the 2008-09 school year.

"The costs will be significant," Voitier said, adding that the renovations
and reconstruction will be financed in part by FEMA, the Louisiana Recovery
Authority and insurance.

. . . . . . .

Bob Warren can be reached at bwarren at timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3363.

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