On a countertop in the Houston apartment she shares with her mother, a dozen greeting cards are carefully arranged, all of them congratulating Jasmine Shorter on her graduation from high school.
Just two weeks earlier, two-dozen members of the Shorters’ extended family traveled from five states to cheer for Jasmine as she received her diploma in a jubilant ceremony at the Houston Astrodome. It had been a long journey to this point for Jasmine, 18, and her mom.
“It was a proud moment,” Jasmine’s mother, Shawn Shorter, says. “We were yelling and screaming. Just happy for her.”
It was a moment made possible because Shawn Shorter had chosen to stay in Houston for one reason: a better education for Jasmine.
Ten years ago, as Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans, they left their home in Gentilly and evacuated to Meridian, Miss.
What was expected to be a short detour turned into a years-long odyssey that took the pair from Mississippi to Atlanta, then on to San Antonio before they settled in Houston. And though Texas’ largest city became more than a temporary shelter for the family, it never came to feel like home.
Jasmine is one of the thousands of students who attended New Orleans in August 2005, was forced out of the city, and never returned. She is one of the more than 400,000 residents from the New Orleans metropolitan area who became part of the largest one-time displacement of Americans.
In the first year after the storm, evacuees from New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast area hammered by Katrina could be found living in every state and registered in nearly every ZIP code. Those who left were more likely to be African-American, single or separated, unemployed, and renters, according to the U.S. Census.
Some never came back, settling in other parts of Louisiana; in other Southern states; and as far away as Pennsylvania and California.
Parents had many reasons for not returning to New Orleans. Some found their new cities offered a better quality of life and schools. Some didn’t have the money to rebuild their homes. Others didn’t want to relive the storm’s trauma and devastation.
Various researchers have provided snapshots of the young people in the Katrina diaspora, following cohorts of children over the years. But it’s difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of the lives and educational experiences of those students who left New Orleans and never came back—how many enrolled in schools and where, and, 10 years later, how they fared.
“This is something of great concern to me, that we don’t have really good systematic data on what happened to the Katrina children,” says Lori Peek, an associate professor at Colorado State University. She has followed a group of children in the Gulf Coast over seven years, along with others who landed in Colorado.
Sanctuary in Texas
Between Oct. 1, 2004—the last official student headcount before Katrina—about 66,000 students were in New Orleans’ public schools. Two years later, when the first post-storm headcount was done, nearly 41,000 students had left.
The majority of displaced students re-enrolled in other parishes within the state, according to Louisiana education officials.
For those who crossed state lines, Texas became the biggest sanctuary: 46,506 evacuees from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida enrolled in its schools. The Houston district took in the most evacuees from New Orleans, enrolling 5,647 that fall. Dallas had 3,498; Katy had 1,765; and San Antonio had 573.
Louisiana education officials asked their counterparts in other states to collect and share data on those students, but many districts didn’t keep track of the Katrina evacuees because it wasn’t required. Some districts that saw a rapid influx of evacuee students did track the new enrollees in the first year to get federal aid to cover the cost of educating them.
But as the years passed and Katrina faded deeper into memory, districts stopped keeping separate tabs on those students. Some said that singling out the evacuees—even in data analysis of graduation rates, test results, and college enrollment—perpetuated the Katrina label, which had been a source of conflict and bullying in some of their new schools.
While overall data collection was uneven, Texas does provide a window into how displaced students performed academically—though its data are not restricted solely to evacuees from New Orleans, and the sample size is small.
In a 2010 report, Texas education officials examined a subset of Katrina evacuees, who were in grades 3, 5, and 8 in 2006, and compared their performance on state tests with those of Texas students of similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. They found that the evacuees did better on the state’s math and English/language arts tests than non-evacuees in the comparison group in three of the four years covered in the study.
‘Mobility on Steroids’
For students who returned to New Orleans after spending months or years away from the city, life was far from settled.
A steady influx of returning students put a heavy strain on the city’s new school system that was still struggling to reinvent itself, says Paul Vallas, who served as the superintendent of the Recovery School District from 2007 to 2011. Each month during his tenure, 60 to 70 students, on average, returned to the district. Academic skills for most of them were weak, especially high-school-aged students, who were, on average, four years below grade level, Vallas says.
“That’s like mobility on steroids,” he says.
In a system operating under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, recruiting thousands of teachers, scrambling to find suitable space for schools, and building a functioning data system took precedent over conducting an exhaustive search for where every child had ended up.
But coming back to the city did not necessarily correspond with stability, Vallas says. Many families had no homes to return to. They moved among hotels, Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, and the homes of family members and friends.
Students who had been out of school for extended periods and returned to the city two or more years after the storm had an especially hard time. The New Orleans metropolitan area is now home to one of the largest populations of out-of-school and unemployed youths, ages 16 to 24, in the nation, a sobering statistic that advocates partially blame on the early disarray of the poststorm education system. Estimated at 26,000 youths in 2013, these youths are predominantly male, African-American, and have GEDs, according to a recent report by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives.
Many of those youths were school-aged children at the time of the storm, when the school district was in flux and when a number of charter schools that opened in the first wave had to be shut down, says Karran Harper Royal, an education activist in New Orleans.
“Every time I hear of a young person who is involved in a crime or is the victim of a crime, I wonder what that child’s education experience was after Katrina,” says Harper Royal.
Vallas says the school system tried to help the most fragile students. It set up a transition center to help ease the return, enrolled students up to the age of 21, established an alternative school for overaged students, and provided meals, counseling, and other supports. But local circumstances, including poverty and constant mobility, exacerbated the failings of the pre-Katrina school system, he says.
“The school district did all it had the capacity to do,” he says. “I think clearly one can argue that the city could have done more. For that matter, even the state could have done more, particularly with the young adults who were returning to the school system.”
I think clearly one can argue that the city could have done more. For that matter, even the state could have done more, particularly with the young adults who were returning to the school system. PAUL VALLAS, Former Superintendent, Recovery School District
‘Lost in Class’
Two months after the storm, Shawn Shorter enrolled Jasmine in the 3rd grade at Condit Elementary School in Bellaire, an affluent Houston suburb of 17,000. After a little time in the school, she was shocked to learn that Jasmine, who had attended St. Rita Catholic School in New Orleans, was two grade levels behind her peers.
Jasmine had been a better student in reading and writing than in math and science, but at Condit, she found that she was also struggling in those subjects.
“I wasn’t prepared,” Jasmine says now of the revelation. “I was very lost in class.”
Jasmine’s teachers recommended that she repeat 3rd grade.
Shorter did not hesitate. Ensuring Jasmine got a better education was worth the steep trade-offs she was making. She had turned down an overnight job at a Houston branch of the bank that employed her in New Orleans because she had no one to take care of Jasmine. For most of the 10 years, she got by on child-support payments from her ex-husband; FEMA aid that she had saved; and part-time jobs.
“It was a struggle for me financially, but I have no regrets because Jasmine received such a great education here,” Shorter says.
As Jasmine repeated 3rd grade, her teachers were the same ones from the previous year and knew her weak spots. They focused on helping her catch up. Some stayed after school to tutor her. A writing teacher worked closely with Jasmine to improve her short stories, expand her vocabulary, and ace reading comprehension.
Within the first few months of starting 6th grade, Jasmine had caught up. She moved up to 7th grade, joining some of her original Condit classmates. By the time she got to Lamar High School, she enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program. Few of her classmates knew she was from New Orleans, much less the circumstances that brought her to Houston.
Now that she’s graduated, she plans to attend Houston Community College and eventually study journalism at a four-year college. Her mother just recently completed a medical-coding course, which she hopes leads to a steady, better-paying job.
After 10 years—more than half of her life—Jasmine considers herself a Houstonian.
“Not me,” says her mother.
“I love New Orleans, too, and I miss the happy memories I’ve had there,” Jasmine says, “but I like it here.”
Picking Up the Pieces
Franiqueka Fortune lives with her grandmother and 3-year-old son, Xavier, on Angel Lane, in a Houston subdivision built for storm survivors by Habitat for Humanity and Oprah’s Angel Network.
In August 2005, Fortune had just started 11th grade at Joseph S. Clark High School in New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood. In her head, she had a clear picture of what the next six years would be like: She’d go to her school’s annual ROTC military balls, captain the flag team, attend Loyola University, and study law.
“I just remember looking forward to all those school activities and making memories,” Fortune, now 25, says.
Even with the storm threatening, Fortune’s mother, Linda Brown, was reluctant to leave their home in the 8th Ward. But pushed by her daughters, she packed up the family and joined the masses of other evacuees headed west for Houston.
Fortune and her siblings viewed the trip as a minivacation at best, a family reunion at worst. An older sister already lived in Houston. And her mother had extended family there. But as they watched scenes of chaos and devastation on television and got first-person accounts from their father, who had stayed behind, they knew returning was not an option.
In the first months after the storm, close to 30 adults and children crammed into Fortune’s sister’s three-bedroom apartment.
School did not offer a respite from her chaotic home life. At the Alief Independent school district in southwest Houston, where Fortune enrolled in school, New Orleans’ evacuees were greeted with suspicion even as they registered for school, she says.
“The media played it like everybody needed to beware of people coming from New Orleans—they steal, they hurt, they kill,” she says. “So people immediately felt they needed to be on the defensive.”
To help the new students get along with their Houston peers, an assistant principal started a program to bring them together to defuse tensions, she says. And while some teachers went out of their way to help Katrina evacuees, she says, others appeared indifferent to their plight. While counseling was available to help students, she says she did not feel comfortable participating in one-on-one sessions.
Fortune spent the first year trying to adjust to a new school environment and trying to get out of classes that she had already taken in New Orleans.
But Fortune’s biggest problem was her depression. She didn’t feel like she could talk to anyone at home or anyone at school.
Mental-health issues were not uncommon among children displaced by the storm. Children displaced by Katrina were 4½ times more likely than their peers who did not experience the storm to display symptoms that were consistent with serious emotional disturbances, according to a 2010 report by the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Even among parents who thought their children needed mental-health assistance, less than half of them received it, the report found.
Fortune numbly plowed through her first year at Elsik High School. She failed geometry, history, and another class that she doesn’t remember. She graduated by meeting Louisiana’s graduation standards, but did not complete the requirements to earn a Texas diploma. Afterward, she left for the U.S. Navy, but her departure was short-lived. Unprepared for the separation from her family and still not over the storm’s emotional punch, she was back in Houston within months.
For the next few years, she worked a series of retail jobs. Last year, she started taking introductory courses at Houston Community College. She hopes to study business and start a nonprofit that pairs poor youths with mentors—to provide the support she wishes she had gotten.
Fortune hasn’t let go of thinking about what her life might be if her New Orleans’ plans had not been washed away by Katrina.
“A lot of things about the storm changed me,” she says. “I feel like if I had not gone to school here, maybe I would have been where I wanted to be, not 25 just returning to school.”