Teaching young Katrina evacuees

The Shlenker School´s Julie Jerden greets New Orleans kindergartener, Oliver Oelsner, on his first day of school on Sept. 6 in Houston. (Michael C. Duke)

The Shlenker School´s Julie Jerden greets New Orleans kindergartener, Oliver Oelsner, on his first day of school on Sept. 6 in Houston. (Michael C. Duke)

HOUSTON, Sept. 12 (JTA) — In New Orleans, Dr. David and Michelle Oelsner’s three sons attended a nonsectarian private school. But now that the family has evacuated to Houston, Josh, Andrew and Oliver will be attending Jewish day schools. “We were offered three spots” at a Houston-area private school, “but instead we decided that it would be in our sons’ best interests to send them to a Jewish day school,” David Oelsner said. The Oelsners are not alone. Many Jewish evacuees from the Gulf Coast region, facing the reality that their return to New Orleans is at least six months away, are now sending their children to day schools in Houston. In order to make the evacuees’ transition to life in Houston as manageable as possible, Jewish schools in the area have opened their doors to every family that fled the Gulf Coast region — both Jewish and non-Jewish. So far, nearly 90 new Jewish students have enrolled in Houston’s five major day schools — Robert M. Beren Academy, Torah Day School, Beth Yeshurun Day School, the Shlenker School and the Emery/Weiner School — as well as several congregational preschools and early childhood development programs. According to Elaine Kellerman, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston’s Bureau of Jewish Education, these numbers are expected to rise in weeks to come. “As more Jewish families who evacuated their homes due to Hurricane Katrina settle in Houston to be closer to family and friends or because of employment opportunities, we will likely see an even greater increase in the number of new students at our day schools,” Kellerman said. “It’s hard to estimate how many new students we will actually absorb week after week, because we are still in the process of determining how many Jewish children there were in the Greater New Orleans area to begin with,” she noted. All five heads of Houston’s Jewish day schools say they will do everything they can to help students adjust to their new lives. The schools’ work was made easier when the Avi Chai Foundation, which supports Jewish educational initiatives in the United States and Israel, said they would be sending emergency grant money to day schools that absorbed children from the evacuation. Fifteen-hundred dollars will be earmarked for each student per semester for the Jewish day school he or she attends in Houston, Kellerman noted, with the money going toward books, supplies and hiring of additional teachers and school staff. In contrast to the day schools, not many Jewish children from New Orleans have enrolled in Houston’s various religious and Hebrew school programs, Kellerman said. Kellerman pointed out, however, that there have been a few students who have looked seriously into local religious schools, particularly those who will celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs in the coming year. Sherri and Matt Tarr’s daughter, Kayla, now is a third-grader at the Shlenker School; their son, Josh, now attends the seventh grade at the Emery/Weiner School, which absorbed 36 new students in the period immediately following the hurricane, the most of any day school in Houston. The Tarrs evacuated their Metairie, La., home the Saturday before the levees were breeched; they spent time in Jackson, Miss.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Orlando, Fla., before settling in Houston. The family left their 15-year-old cat behind when they evacuated their home. But Matt Tarr succeeded in rescuing Pumpkin, on Sept. 7, and brought her back to Houston. Having surveyed the damage done to their home by Hurricane Katrina, Tarr said there was three feet of mold creeping up the interior walls and that two trees had crushed the roof. Before Hurricane Katrina, the Tarrs’ children had attended the New Orleans Jewish Day School. After their first week in the Houston school, Josh and Kayla said they feel very comfortable in their new surroundings. Both pointed out that their homework loads are a bit heavier in Houston, but everything else has been similar to their school experience in New Orleans. They said their teachers and classmates have been very caring and welcoming, which has made them feel that they belong and are accepted by all. In contrast, another new student at the Emery/Weiner School, Mica Loewy, the daughter of Lynn and Rabbi Robert Loewy of Temple Gates of Prayer in Metairie, La., has had a difficult time orienting herself to the post-Katrina world. She and her parents said they are very grateful for all that the school and Houston community have done for them but the transition continues to be an agonizing affair. “Like so many kids her age, Mica was totally unprepared for what has become a painful reality,” Lynn explained carefully, not wanting to belittle the generous outpouring of support their family has received from the Houston community over the past two weeks. “Our daughter’s comfortable life has been completely interrupted: She lost a school she had just fallen in love with, and she is utterly devastated by the fact that her two best girlfriends are in Atlanta and Memphis and might never return home. “She misses her old life, she has told us, and it’s been very difficult for her to start over again. And it’s been so hard for us as parents to watch her cry and not be able to make the pain go away.”

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