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A tough lesson

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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PEARLINGTON, Miss. ” Lucy Mitchell has taken the demise of the Pearlington elementary school particularly hard.

It was more than a place to work for the fifth-grade teacher. She had attended the school herself and, as a lifelong resident of the community, has seen scores of her neighbors’ kids pass through its halls.

Her home, or at least what’s left of it, is also next to the school. It’s a shell of a house now, ravaged by the wind and water Hurricane Katrina unleashed six months ago.

Mitchell gives a what-do-you-think glance when asked how it feels to see the school shut down, possibly for good.

“Put it this way: I still go to my old classroom and sit there and cry,” she said.

Her room in the brick building that was constructed in 1966 wasn’t demolished.

But so much water ran through at such high velocity that virtually everything got swept down the hall or out of the building. Several inches of mud caked the entire interior.

The classrooms in the elementary school were deemed unusable because of the mud and mold. The gymnasium and library that are like bookends on either side of the classrooms were cleaned out and used as a shelter for homeless residents, initially, then for volunteers. (It will be home for 45 seniors and faculty from Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale next week.) The gym is Pearlington’s distribution center for food and supplies.

The children in grades kindergarten through five are taking a bus about 20 miles one way to the town of Kiln (pronounced Kill) and attending classes in special trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The trailers were placed in rows, along with those of another elementary school with an enrollment of 400, behind the building of a consolidated middle school for the area.

While 20 miles isn’t a long way in America’s commuter culture, the timing stinks for the Pearlington kids. There aren’t enough bus drivers, so work is doubled up. That means the Pearlington kids get on the bus before the regular routes start in the morning and they get delivered home after the buses have made their first passes. That makes for days up to 10 hours long for kids as young as 5.

Long hours are better than no hours. The students missed all of September and half of October before the emergency arrangements could be made.

There were 57 students enrolled when classes resumed. The numbers increased to 69 with the return of more families. Still, that’s only a little more than half of the 125 enrolled before Katrina.

Each grade has its own classroom in half of a trailer. A fourth trailer is dedicated to the administration and library.

The Pearlington students cannot use the cafeteria at the adjacent middle school. Administrators determined there wasn’t enough room to accommodate the extra students.

So the Pearlington kids troop off at a prescribed time, grab lunch in a Styrofoam container, like carryout at McDonald’s, and file back to their classrooms. Friday was tuna fish sandwich day, something that horrified many of the kids. They made it clear they want their old school back, with their old way of doing things.

Only seven fifth-graders are in the class taught by Mitchell and assistant Virginia Doby out of what had been a class of 20. A poll of those kids Friday showed that five are living with their families in cramped FEMA trailers in Pearlington. One boy’s family was back in their house after repairs had been made. Another boy said his family is renting a house that is habitable.

All of the kids said they still think about the storm. Only a couple said they have nightmares.

Paige Necaise, 11, doesn’t have nightmares, but she wants major changes over the next year. She wants a house again, she said, and she wants her cat back. Safire has been missing since most parts of Pearlington were swamped under at least 14 feet of water.

The trauma didn’t appear to interfere with their desire to learn.

“I don’t think they’ve lost a whole lot, I really don’t,” said Jeanne Brooks, librarian and head teacher. Assessment test scores don’t show drastic changes.

Brooks said the district policy initially was to lay off assigning homework. Many families were living in tents when school resumed, so students were too busy surviving to study. FEMA hadn’t delivered large numbers of trailers yet.

Parents soon convinced teachers to pile on the homework.

“It gave them something to do,” Brooks said.

School counselor Sally Kappus has been on the watch for any signs of students having trouble after the storm.

“The parents are the ones you really have to worry about,” she said. “The children are more resilient.”

The teachers and administrators of Pearlington’s elementary school would like peace of mind about their school. No decision has been made about its future, said Principal Lenette Ladner. It’s clear the classes will be in the temporary trailers for two or three years.

Brooks, like the other teachers, lobbies school district officials to rebuild in Pearlington. The school is a vital part of the community’s identity, she said.

Realistically, the chances are slim, Brooks acknowledged. The school district will be reluctant to spend funds on a new school with a low enrollment in a community with an uncertain future.

But Pearlington teachers would like to keep the solution simple by resuming class in their old building.

“We would like to say, ‘Give us back our 69 kids and we’ll be fine,” Brooks said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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