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Schools focusing on rebuilding facilities, personnel, enrollments

Coast elementary and high schools have spent the past three years rebuilding and repairing their facilities while also working to boost their enrollment numbers and personnel rolls. Some systems are using incentives and federal government grants to assist in recruiting and retaining teachers.

The Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District was one of the hardest hit by Katrina and was the last to resume classes after the 2005 storm, missing 70 days of school. Superintendent Dr. Kim Stasny says the district lost 30% of its staff and many students through relocations. The pre-Katrina student enrollment was 2,400 and to date stands at 1,650.

“The weeks following Katrina were the most horrendous I’ve ever spent,” she said. “There was no time off; it was pretty grueling. It was a good thing many of the staff relocated because we didn’t need them.”

Post-Katrina reality

The post-Katrina reality has brought about a new configuration of three elementary schools into two. The district is trying to rebuild destroyed facilities so students can get out of portable buildings. Construction of two new elementary schools is expected to begin in November with anticipated openings in the fall of 2010.

“We hope to open them on the fifth anniversary of Katrina,” Stasny said. “Three years ago, I never would have thought that would be possible. The new buildings will meet our needs and bring more parents back into the district. They have a reluctance to send children to the portable rooms. When bad weather happens, parents panic and I can understand that.”

She is also hoping to find funds to build another alternative school and a central office. A dispute between the insurance adjustor and the insurance company resulted in the district receiving a payment of only $13 million. That really hampers the district’s recovery.

Dr. Mike Ladner became superintendent of the Diocese of Biloxi Catholic Schools in May 2005. “No one could be prepared for what Hurricane Katrina did, but I spent 21 years in the Air Force and I’m thankful for it,” he says. “We had to re-open the schools. The Bishop said let’s get ‘er done, and we did.”

Out of 18 schools in six counties, five were destroyed and six were heavily damaged. Several others received some damage and took on varying amounts of water. The destruction started at St. Clare Elementary in Waveland where a 35-foot surge wiped it away and swept across the Coast to St. Peter Elementary in Pascagoula and destroyed it, 60 miles away. Catholic schools in Laurel and Hattiesburg were not spared damage either.

Adding it up

“The adjustors quit counting at $70 million,” Ladner said. “We were covered by carriers including Lloyd’s of London. We’re still adding up the costs as we continue rebuilding.”

The system had 4,600 students before Katrina, and is now at 98% of that enrollment. Following the storm, some teachers had to be let go, which Ladner describes as a painful part of the recovery. Elementary schools have merged in all three Coast counties. Katrina also expedited the merger of St. John and Mercy Cross high schools into the new St. Patrick High School, a merger that was already in the works.

“The new state-of-the-art high school is going well. It is located out on Highway 605, eight miles from Interstate 10. There’s not much out there now, but they will have a lot of company in a few years,” Ladner said. “We’re not rebuilding any schools on the beach. We can’t put schools back in harm’s way.”

Cindy DeFrances, community relations coordinator for the Gulfport School District, says enrollment is slowly returning to the more than 6,000 students before Katrina. It now stands at 5,500.

“Our enrollment is expected to increase and we’re definitely recruiting teachers,” she said. “It is still difficult to find teachers, but we’re doing better. Math, science and special education are the most crucial, and there are some incentives for these highest needs fields.”

The Biloxi School District plans to make $15 million in improvements this year, including a new $10-million wing at Biloxi High School to accommodate the move of ninth-grade students from the junior high.

“Enrollment is at 4,500, slowly working its way back to the pre-Katrina level of 6,100,” said spokesman Vincent Creel. “The numbers are expected to increase significantly as Keesler Air Force Base brings more of its new housing online.”

He says the big questions remains for east Biloxi where few homes and businesses were left standing and rebuilding is slow. “The school board will probably have to look at its existing school attendance zones next year and consider adjustments accordingly,” he said.

In spite of Katrina’s destruction and the aftermath of rebuilding, Creel points out that Biloxi has the state’s highest rating, Level 5, and Biloxi High School was recognized as a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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