As School Ends, Instability Returns for Katrina Evacuees

Hurricane Katrina evacuees Jasmyne Palmer, 17, and Marcus Nance, 16, finished 11th grade at Flowers High School in Springdale.
Hurricane Katrina evacuees Jasmyne Palmer, 17, and Marcus Nance, 16, finished 11th grade at Flowers High School in Springdale. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hung Tran began eighth grade in flight from the hurricane that flooded his New Orleans home. He finished the school year 1,000 miles away in Prince George's County. Now he faces another move, to Virginia, one more ripple in the demographic and educational upheaval unleashed by Katrina.

During his sojourn at Greenbelt Middle School, Hung made a name for himself as a spelling ace. The 14-year-old clinched victory in the county bee with "eupepsia" (definition: good digestion).

He was even profiled on ABC's "World News Tonight" the day he misspelled "entelechy" last week at the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Anchor Charles Gibson said the word (a philosophy term) had stumped him, too. "But that young man still has a lot to be proud of," Gibson said.

As the school year draws to a close -- yesterday was the final day in Prince George's -- hundreds of students who landed in the Washington area after Hurricane Katrina are beginning their first summer break since the disaster uprooted their families.

For many, the end of school will bring fresh uncertainty. School helped anchor students who have been living with friends or relatives in temporary quarters and unfamiliar cities since the fall. Some thrived in their adopted schools, and some struggled to acclimate. But most took comfort in the structure of an academic routine. Now their parents are weighing whether to stay in the area, move back to the Gulf Coast or attempt to start a new life elsewhere.

At the height of the Gulf Coast exodus, about 950 hurricane-displaced students were enrolled in Maryland and about 1,300 in Virginia. D.C. public schools reported a peak enrollment of 72 hurricane evacuees. Roman Catholic schools in the area counted about 100.

Most had fled Katrina, which hammered southeast Louisiana and Mississippi in late August. The totals also include students forced to leave the Texas-Louisiana border region when Hurricane Rita hit in late September.

Many displaced students drifted out of the Washington area soon after arriving. Maryland now has 518. Virginia counted 815 on March 31. The District's count dropped sharply as well.

"A lot of students came in for the first semester, when there really wasn't a home [for them] and families were trying to figure out what the next steps were," said Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington. Many Catholic school students, she said, returned to the New Orleans area. "Not all of them did. Not all of them could."

Since September, Hung, his parents and his sister, Mary, have lived at the home of his older brother Elvis in Greenbelt. But the entire family expects to move to Richmond soon. There, Hung's father will search for work. It's unclear when the family will move back to New Orleans, if ever.

Hung said he still hungers for Louisiana gumbo and jambalaya. But he'll miss Greenbelt, too. "I made some great friends," he said. "I had awesome teachers."

At Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale, two Katrina evacuees remained at year's end out of 12 who had arrived in September. Marcus Nance, 16, and Jasmyne Palmer, 17, both finished 11th grade at Flowers. He plans to stay in Prince George's and graduate next year; she is headed back to Louisiana.

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