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Schools increasing population with steady support

By Johnny Jackson

On Friday, school spokesman Charles White reported that 837 student evacuees enrolled into Clayton County Public Schools, 231 in high schools, 218 in middle schools, and 388 in elementary schools and pre-k programs.

Many of those students' families have been assigned to the district's Homeless Education Program in which school social workers will assess their families' needs as evacuees of Hurricane Katrina.

Sonia Davis is the program's coordinator and on Friday she stood near her office surrounded by an understated chaos, a few volunteers moving and sorting donated relief and school supplies.

"They are children in need; they are children at risk. Not only do they need support, but their families need support," she said.

Davis said the most important thing to her, as a parent, is stability for the children.

"I'm always advocating for children," she said. "It's more than just a job for me. It's a ministry of giving. Here, I'm able to go beyond the limits to provide services for the children."

Davis said that housing is a major need for evacuees in Clayton County. She said the school district continues to refer families to local housing authorities, resourceful charitable organizations, and individual property owners, placing an emphasis on local support for displaced families. Families sometimes doubly occupy spaces, she said.

The average displaced family, after a student is enrolled, is assigned a school social worker for needs assessments. She said the social worker then sends recommendations to the district's homeless services department for whatever provisions are available.

"School stability, child stability, housing stability, and job stability are key components of what these families need," Davis said. "We try to supplement them with those resources. And we try to maintain stability in the school environment for the children in spite of their situation. It's all for the children."

Kathy Richards of Brown Elementary School is one of several guidance counselors throughout the county working overtime in support of families who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Friday, Richards said 26 of the 820 students at her school were displaced by the hurricane. Most were 4th- and 5th-graders, and she expects more to come.

"These are a remarkable group of kids who have weathered that type of trauma and are still able to come to school and smile," she said. "They've been extremely appreciative. They are very humble children and families."

Richards' job now entails helping those students to acclimate to their new school environments.

"We tour the students around the school with our student ambassadors," she said. "I've had a couple of individual group sessions with the students to talk about what they're feeling coming here."

While parents were appreciative and mostly quiet, she said the majority of her new students are confused and afraid.

"Confusion," she said. "They're confused about everything that happened. Fear. Because this is a new place; this is not a comfort zone. The children have been removed from their comfort zone.

"The thing that has been most frightening is to have this unplanned. This was totally unexpected, unplanned. That's scary. They weren't prepared.

"A couple are anxious to get back to see what's left. 'Where are my toys? I wonder if my bike is there?'

"They're watching the news to see when they can return (because) they're not necessarily ready to refer to Georgia as home."

She said that her new students each expressed a wide range of emotions and reactions. Some described the wind as others described collapsed houses, "then the water came," Richards said.

She added some students felt angry, wondrous, and even lost for friends and family who are unaccounted for.

Though some have nightmares and still feel and taste the watery gulf coast disaster, Richards said, they were happy to be at school.

"The feeling I'm getting from older kids is that 'I'm not ready to trust this right now. I'm not ready. Where are my friends?'" she said.

Richards will continue to meet with her new students in group and one-on-one settings. She said she is working on getting the children to express themselves in the classrooms to their classmates.

At least half of that effort is done. She said the fifth-grade classes at Brown Elementary have adopted grades to support in the disaster aftermath. They have made cards and sent stuffed animals to those students to help them cope.

"I'm proud of my fifth-graders for wanting to be involved in something so real," she said.