Central Elementary principal: ‘It’s a story of survival’ | VailDaily.com

Central Elementary principal: ‘It’s a story of survival’

J.K. Perry
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyCentral Elementary School student Nadia Neal, 10, works on an art project during her second week of school after Hurricane Katrina hit Gulfport, Miss.

GULFPORT, Miss. – Ten-year-old Mason Pittman enthusiastically recalls the day Katrina ripped his roof off and sent a tree into his bedroom.”My whole roof tore off,” the fourth-grader said, throwing his hands in the air. The tree “busted” through the wall of his Bay St. Louis home, just a couple of towns west of Gulfport. He relocated to Central Elementary School in Gulfport, where students resumed school last week.Many came back with Katrina on their minds.Twelve teachers, 10 other personnel and 165 children from the flood-damaged and nearly roofless 28th Street Elementary School started the school year at Central. The departure of 95 students from Central softened the blow, but not without a few hiccups.”It’s a difficult type of transition having two schools under one roof,” Principal Janice Wilson said.The exodus of students is attributed to the destroyed or uninhabitable homes parents left to find work or living space. Central area apartments – where many students lived – were damaged by either wind or water.

Parents that stayed have time to look for jobs and places to live while the students are back in school, Wilson said.”We took the first few days to acclimate the students back to school and help them understand what happened,” Wilson said.Four teachers, six assistants and several cafeteria workers also left. Ten teachers still on staff lost everything. Returning teachers underwent training to deal with psychological fallout. Counselors listened to students having emotional problems.”We’re doing pretty well,” said fourth-grade teacher Denise Mott about her class. “Only four or five students were negatively affected.”The older children, fifth graders, tend to exhibit more emotion because they realize what they had and what they’ve lost, Wilson said. Younger students coped more easily, she said.”Even the kindergartners understand the storm and that it took their home,” Wilson said. “If you’re from this area, hurricanes are part of the culture.”

Across town, Gaston Point Elementary students are also finishing up their second week back in school. “Parents are all very happy the kids are back here and safe,” Principal Wanda Bradley said. And so are students, she said.”You can see the relief on their faces; just to have something normal” like familiar teachers and classrooms, Bradley said.The school has also lost teachers, students and staff. Like Central, families and individuals have lost their homes. Four teachers now live in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers behind a high school and carpool to work every day.”The teachers are holding on,” Bradley said. “It’s good for them to have some stability because they lost everything.”A counselor prompted students to draw pictures of what they witnessed and what happened. Depicted were houses with holes. One boy drew a Red Cross food line he had to stand in for hours, and another drew parents crying.But in many of them, the sun shone.

“Gulfport is coming back. It’s coming back bigger and better,” Bradley said.The school year was setback three weeks. Holidays and summer will be cut into to make up for lost learning. Despite the setbacks, the strength of students and Gulfport, Bradley said, will get them through Katrina’s aftermath.”It’s a story of survival,” she said.Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or jkperry@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado

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