A newcomer to the Charles H. Flowers High School varsity football squad ran curls and slants last week on a practice field beneath a dusty afternoon sun. He muffed one pass, caught two, queued up for more.
Marcus Nance again belongs to a team, a school, a community.
After Hurricane Katrina, Marcus and his mother, sister and two brothers huddled for days on a ramp outside the New Orleans Superdome amid chaos, random gunfire and corpses. His home was flooded, his school shuttered, his city ruined.
Now, Marcus finds himself at Flowers High in Prince George's County, one month after starting 11th grade in New Orleans. He is one of hundreds of students who have trekked from the Gulf Coast to the Washington area to restart a shattered school year.
The Katrina kids are flowing quietly into the region's schools, their numbers swelling day by day. Maryland and Virginia public schools have taken at least 1,488 evacuees, including more than 810 in the Washington area, education officials said yesterday.
The county school systems in Prince George's, Montgomery and Fairfax have enrolled 140 to 150 displaced students apiece. D.C. public schools have 35.
In addition, at least 92 evacuees are in area Catholic schools, and the Archdiocese of Washington is waiving tuition to ease hardship. New Orleans Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes last week visited six evacuees at Blessed Sacrament School in Northwest Washington. Fifteen students from a Jesuit high school in New Orleans are at the Jesuit-run Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda.
These numbers pale next to the many thousands of students from southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi who are streaming into schools in such southern cities as Baton Rouge, La., and Houston. Educating them this year and rebuilding their schools will pose a massive financial and logistical challenge.
By contrast, Washington area school officials say they can easily absorb the evacuees who have arrived. Public schools expect government aid to offset the enrollment bump; the Bush administration is proposing to reimburse school systems up to $7,500 for each displaced student. The administration also is seeking to help families of displaced private school students.
Many of these students want only to blend into their new schools and shed the stigma of labels. They don't want to be known as homeless, displaced or evacuees. With little to identify them as out-of-towners save their regional accents, they are seeking to melt into classrooms and noisy hallways in the first weeks of the academic year.
Yet these newcomers are influencing school administrators, teachers and peers with a power that belies their numbers. They are walking emblems of survival.
"It touches you," said Flowers football Coach Michael Mayo. "How can it not?"
The day after Marcus joined the Flowers football team, Mayo referred to the Katrina disaster in a locker room pep talk before a game at Bowie High School. He told his players they were lucky to have a team. "There are kids now who can't play football," Mayo recalled telling the team. "Look at the opportunity you have. Enjoy it."
Flowers Principal Helena Nobles-Jones, a sharecropper's daughter, said the Katrina disaster reminded her of a strong 1954 hurricane her family endured in rural North Carolina. A half-century later, she still can envision that storm's fury: the destroyed cotton and tobacco crops, the coffins unearthed from graveyards, the downed power lines and wrecked roofs.
"I know what it's like not to have," Nobles-Jones said.
Stories of Survival
Nobles-Jones hovers protectively over her Katrina kids. There are 12 so far. That's a tiny fraction of the 2,700 students at the school in Springdale, a community outside the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County's northeastern sector. They began arriving a little more than a week after Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall.
Flowers, a five-year-old school, was built for 2,200 students. Portable classrooms handle the overflow that existed before the hurricane. But Nobles-Jones said she would take many more evacuees if given enough resources.
She ushered five of them into her office recently for interviews with The Washington Post.
Marcus, a wiry 16-year-old with a bit of chin fuzz, addresses adults with a reflexive "ma'am" or "sir." He rode out the storm with his family in New Orleans because they had no way to evacuate beforehand. They camped without cots or blankets outside the Superdome for days. They caught a bus bound for Dallas, but it was shunted to a military camp in Oklahoma. His father, who lives in New Carrollton, finally picked up the family members in an SUV and brought them to resettle in Prince George's.
Marcus said he has told few other students about his Katrina experience. "Now that I'm up here, I try to put it in the past," he said. "And I keep my head up. If they bring up the subject, I might tell them about it."
Jasmyne Palmer, 16, another 11th-grader, fled Slidell, La., the day before the storm. She rode in a Mercedes diesel sedan with her grandmother, two dogs and two cats. They made their way to Atlanta before running out of money. "One night we slept in the car. The dogs were whining, the cats meowing. It was miserable." A relative wired them some money, and they reached a cousin's house in Upper Marlboro.
Like Marcus, Jasmyne came from a school much smaller than Flowers High. She said she is still adjusting to the rhythms of A/B block schedules -- four classes one day, four more the next. Then there are the large lunch crowds and mildly seasoned food. She appears eager to return to Slidell, hoping to do so as early as next month. But Dana Tutt-Alfred, a relative who enrolled her at Flowers and who is an assistant principal in a Prince George's elementary school, said it is unclear when Jasmyne will be able to go home with her dogs, Cinnamon and Meilei, and cats, Snowflake and Skittles.
Brothers Eddie and Joshua Bloodwirt, 16 and 15 respectively, and their cousin James Sansone, 17, fled New Orleans and landed at a great uncle's house in Mitchellville after tortuous journeys, including a plane flight. James escaped before the storm, Eddie and Joshua days later, having slept on an elevated interstate highway and waded through miles of grimy floodwater.
The lanky trio hope to try out for the Flowers basketball team. They said they've been treated somewhat like celebrities. Students will stop them, remark on their accents and ask whether they're from New Orleans. One girl cried upon hearing their story and offered unsolicited hugs.
Asked how he will start over, James said: "I'm used to making something out of nothing. We was already living on nothing. This is really nothing new."
'Compelled to Give'
In his English class, James found more Katrina echoes. Teacher Eric Skinner had tacked a New Orleans basketball jersey onto his wall. Outside Skinner's door stood dozens of boxes of clothes and other supplies collected for Katrina relief. Newspaper clippings about the storm were taped onto windows next to fliers for a relief drive. "Katrina has attacked and we will fight back!" read one.
Skinner said the drive has raised more than $26,000. Local businesses have given thousands. Students have chipped in lunch money. The school's monthly newspaper is selling advertising to raise more relief funds ($10 per ad for students, $25 for others).
"We felt compelled to give what we could," said Brittany Patrick, 16, one of Skinner's students. "Hurricane Katrina has really shocked a lot of people."
Skinner said the school will look after the new students in months to come.
"We're adopting those kids," he said. "Anything they need -- calculators, books, clothes. They'll always have a place to go."
He and other teachers also inject Katrina into daily lessons. Example: "FEMA. F-E-M-A. Stands for what?" Skinner asked one class in a pop quiz. Chemistry teacher Jaimie Foster, with two evacuees in her classes, said she lectured one day on toxic floodwater.
Foster said the new Flowers students -- like hundreds of thousands of Katrina kids in schools nationwide -- have touched teachers. "It's traumatic," she said. "It's very, very hard at times to keep your emotions in line."
Jasmyne Palmer fled Slidell, La., the day before the hurricane.