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After Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and effectively shut down the city, Korbin Johnson, a resident and local teacher, was one of the thousands of evacuees with no home to return to.

After traveling to New Mexico to stay with family, he received a call from a friend in Houston telling him that students from Johnson's former school were found at the Houston Astrodome evacuation area.

Johnson flew to Houston along with Gary Robichaux and other staff from the Louisiana office of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) - a national open-enrollment charter system for college-bound kids - to find the students.

"I flew out to see what we could do," Johnson said. "We weren't expecting to be there long term but when we arrived, we realized we could serve a need."

After meeting families at the shelters whose children were not attending any schools, Robichaux called Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, and said he wanted to help create a KIPP school for the children uprooted by the hurricane.

"We recruited kids straight out of shelters," Johnson said. "We got fliers, cell phones and contact information, and brought it back to school and put it together as a roster."

 

Sense of Normalcy
In October 2005, New Orleans West (NOW) College Preparatory Academy at Douglass Elementary - the only school for Katrina evacuees in Houston - officially opened as a joint project of the Houston Independent School District, KIPP and Teach for America, which is a nonprofit organization trying to narrow the academic gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Its initial goal was to operate for one year to educate children transplanted by Katrina.

Housed at a former Houston elementary school that was closed after declining enrollment, the school had an initial enrollment of 500 children taught by 37 first-year teachers, also expelled from New Orleans. Johnson became NOW's vice principal and Robichaux, also displaced by Katrina, was the school's principal. 

In addition to providing education for children whose schools were closed or ruined, NOW provided some stability to children traumatized by the hurricane.

"I think the most important thing we offered to our students was getting back some sense of normalcy and getting back to a sense of routine," Johnson said. "In particular, when children are overcoming a traumatic event, they need a routine, and school is that."

To help children overcome the effects of the ordeal they've endured, NOW partnered with numerous organizations that provided help, including a group of psychology students from Tulane University in New Orleans, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Milton Hershey School and Houston Texans football players.

The school offered support groups of parents and teachers where students could express their feelings, art therapy, group counseling and posttraumatic stress disorder studies. Eighty-page workbooks with drawing and writing exercises at the school were designed to give children and adults the opportunity to express their feelings through words and pictures, and a video program was available for students to create documentary films about their experiences after Katrina.

 

Sense of Security
KIPP students spend more time learning, following a rigorous curriculum, attending classes on Saturdays and adhering to strict behavior policies.

In addition to a structured learning environment and a sense of safety and security, Johnson noted that having teachers who shared their experiences was a big help for the students. After Hurricane Katrina, Johnson's sense of security was washed away along with his home, job and means to provide for his family. He could relate, he said, to how important a sense of security is. 

"Making sure kids feel safe is the No. 1 need," he said. "I understood how important it is for people to feel safe and secure. Without that,

Chandler Harris  |  Contributing Writer