New school term, new hope

As children return to school, storm-wrecked Houston hopes it's first step back to normalcy

Eleven-year-old Terra Black, like tens of thousands of schoolchildren in Houston, returned to school last Monday, two weeks after Hurricane Harvey battered the city.
Eleven-year-old Terra Black, like tens of thousands of schoolchildren in Houston, returned to school last Monday, two weeks after Hurricane Harvey battered the city.PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

HOUSTON (Texas) • Terra Black, 11, awoke on her first day of sixth grade on a cot in a sprawling convention hall in Houston, the place she has called home since escaping neck-deep floodwater that threatened her family's apartment.

Here, in bathrooms she shares with about 1,300 other evacuees, she got ready for school, slipping on a pink T-shirt her mother had snatched from a donation pile.

"I'm a little nervous," Terra said later, grinning as she munched on a breakfast sandwich. "It's a new year, a new learning experience."

Tens of thousands of schoolchildren returned to school last Monday, two weeks after Hurricane Harvey battered the city, flooding homes, sweeping away uniforms and school supplies.

For a city in recovery - and especially for displaced children such as Terra - the schools' reopening is a critical step towards normalcy in a city where thousands of homes remain uninhabitable and where signs of the storm still abound.

But while educators celebrated the return of students, they braced themselves for the myriad challenges students face in the storm's aftermath: missing school days, lost school supplies and uniforms, psychological trauma and transience. There were teachers, too, who lost everything, and about 270 were unable to return to work on Monday.

There was also the financial toll: Superintendent Richard Carranza estimates the storm will cost the district US$700 million (S$940 million), a third of the annual budget.

Mr Carranza said the district is attempting to meet the needs created by the storm. It is providing breakfast, lunch and dinner to all schoolchildren this year, regardless of their families' incomes. It has also relaxed requirements so families who were forced to move and could not find lost birth certificates and other records would be able to move to new schools.

As the sun rose on Monday, Ms Ruth Rojas walked her children, nine-year-old Adrian and Joseline, 11, out of the convention centre, where they have been since the Coast Guard rescued them from their home north of Houston.

The siblings had attended school in a suburban district, but Ms Rojas was unsure when - or if - they would be able to return home. So with the help of school staff stationed at the shelter, she registered them at two local schools.

Parents hope the return to school would be therapeutic for their children, whose lives and routines have been upended by the storm.

Ms Stephanie Melton-Curtis escaped the storm with her family by walking through chest-deep water, with her husband, Mr Travis Curtis, carrying their three-year-old daughter, Talayah, on his shoulders. Later, Talayah returned home and asked why her bed and toys were in a pile on the kerb.

Ms Melton-Curtis worries the experience has scarred Talayah, and welcomes the chance for her to start pre-kindergarten, saying: "It will take her mind off it."

Many schoolchildren recounted similar stories of narrowly surviving the flood, which killed at least 22 people, including a family whose van was inundated by floodwater.

Mr Carranza said the district is preparing teachers for the possibility that many children may suffer psychological damage from the storm and its aftermath. It plans to train all teachers in "trauma-informed pedagogy" and to send crisis counsellors to schools. "This is going to be a year of recovery," Mr Carranza said.

School is also a welcome respite from boredom for many children stuck at the convention centre. Save the Children has set up a Kids Zone with arts and crafts and other activities, but there are otherwise few diversions.

At Gregory-Lincoln Education Centre in Houston, Terra sat among her classmates, working on a worksheet titled "All About Me", asking for her favourite colour and game and about her family.

Teacher Kathryn Green oriented pupils to the classroom, pointing out the motivational posters and an Oscar Wilde quote painted in loopy cursive on the wall: "It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it."

As she gestured around the room, Ms Green urged the children to treat the space as if it were their own.

"This is your classroom. This is your homeroom. This is your home," she said. "You guys are going to learn we're a family."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2017, with the headline 'New school term, new hope'. Subscribe