Andrew Jackson High School?
Chalmette High School?
St. Bernard High School?
The students pump their fists high in the air and scream, "ST. BERNARD UNIFIED SCHOOL!"
It's Saturday night -- "A Night to Remember" -- in a year many would rather forget, and more than 300 juniors and seniors from St. Bernard Unified School have come together to celebrate that quintessential rite of passage, their prom. For this one night, no one lives in a FEMA trailer. No one wears Salvation Army hand-me-downs. And no one talks about Hurricane Katrina.
Although the students attended three different high schools before the storm, schools that once harbored deep, longstanding rivalries, they no longer care which school they attended pre-Katrina.
"We are just so happy to be back and have our friends back," says former Andrew Jackson student and current SBUS senior Olivia Lemoine. "Especially because we didn't think they'd have a school open for two years."
This year's prom, the only dance this academic year, has given students a chance not only to dress up and let loose, but also to celebrate with childhood friends who attended different high schools before Hurricane Katrina and to reunite with friends who came to prom but haven't yet moved back to the parish.
"I spent most of the night hugging and kissing people I haven't seen in a really long time," says former Chalmette High student and SBUS senior Justin Templet. "It was as if time kind of stood still because we just danced as if nothing had happened."
Lacey Landry walks over to a girl standing alone in the corner of the banquet hall, back against the wall, shoulders slouched, head down. Lacking a purse, the girl has clipped her cell phone and glasses to her dress. Lacey, whose family stayed during the storm and who would later be crowned prom queen, puts her arm around the lonely girl and invites her to sit at the popular kids' table.
"I'm the type of person," Lacey later says, "who doesn't like to see people all alone."
Since Katrina, the students at St. Bernard Unified School have become each other's keepers. They say their bonds are profound. Not the stereotypical "best friends forever" high school friendships that often fade after students go off to college, but the kind of bonds soldiers share.
The Unified School has united students as well as their flood-ravaged parish. It has brought businesses and people back to St. Bernard -- people who might have opted to move rather than rebuild, if their children hadn't begged to attend school at home.
"If people are willing to bring their most precious possessions -- their children -- here now," says St. Bernard Superintendent of Schools Doris Voitier, "it's a tribute to this community coming back."
Everyone who has returned to St. Bernard Parish has a story of relocation and return, of loss and recovery, but none is more poignant than that of the administrators and teachers who have worked tirelessly over the past year, at a reduced salary, to reopen the school and give their students a sense of normalcy.
School employees at every level came back to "bare-bones buildings" says Chalmette High principal Wayne Warner. "No phone service. Using generators for electricity. Basic things were big problems," Warner says. "They gave up a lot to come back, and that's a big credit to them."
Credit also goes to a group of extraordinary seniors, friends before the storm and pioneers in its aftermath.
Amanda Heffker had enough credits to finish high school her junior year but chose to return.
Brandi Knight commuted to St. Bernard Parish from Gainesville, Fla., for months after the storm to lead dance team practices.
Jason Templet scored four points higher on his ACT test when he retook it after Katrina. His twin Justin was named SBUS's high school student of the year.
This past Sunday (May 28), Amanda, Brandi, Jason and Justin joined 183 other seniors at St. Bernard Unified School to walk across a stage at the New Orleans Arena. They collected diplomas from their individual pre-Katrina schools. And they graduated -- unified.
DURING THE YEAR OF KATRINA, THE ST. Bernard Parish School Board as well as administrators and teachers worked to give students a routine, a place to excel, a sanctuary from the biblical-scale flooding that destroyed all 27,000 homes, 4,500 businesses and 22 schools in this closely knit parish. They opened the St. Bernard Unified School, the only school open in the parish, two months before any public schools in New Orleans reopened.
Housed at Chalmette High School, the Unified School served pre-K through high school students. For the first few months, classes were held in the second-floor math and science classrooms and in 18 trailers next to the football stadium. As work crews finished repairs, and as enrollment grew, classrooms opened on the ground floor.
The long process to reopen a school started a few days after Voitier evacuated the parish by boat to Baton Rouge. State Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard offered Voitier and her staff temporary office space and "any assistance needed." Once she had a command post, Voitier began sending transcripts and immunization records to students scattered across the country and ensuring her employees were paid. Every school district employee received a paycheck through September, and health insurance has continued, even for relocated employees and retirees, through June.
Two weeks after Voitier arrived in Baton Rouge, she returned to St. Bernard Parish to assess the damage. Although the streets were impassable and no building was habitable, she saw promise. Firefighters, police officers and other essential workers never left, and they wanted to bring their families back.
"After I met with those people," she says, "I made a commitment that the first child who came back, we'd provide an education."
She went back to Baton Rouge and summoned Warner and assistant principal Carole "Cookie" Mundt. The three had survived at Chalmette High for six days after the storm. Now they brainstormed ways to get a school opened there by November.
At first, the Federal Emergency Management Agency guaranteed that the Army Corps of Engineers could build two modular schools in the parish within 90 days of the storm. But that timeline quickly changed -- to March.
Frustrated by the federal government's deliberate pace, Voitier told FEMA, "We'll do it ourselves and send you the bill."
So with no tax base and, initially, no financial assistance from the federal government, Voitier signed a construction contract with a local company. Less than a month later, Chalmette High reopened, renewed and renamed St. Bernard Unified School.
Voitier met her self-imposed deadline. On Nov. 14, 334 students showed up for the first day of school post-Katrina. Administrators expected no more than 100. As work crews continued to repair the ground floor, the faculty and students held a pep rally in a tent. And they sang "We Are Family."
At the rally, Voitier told students, "You can tell your grandchildren you were part of the pioneering spirit that brought about the rebirth of the school system and this community."
By Christmas break, the number of students reached 660. Before dismissal for the holidays, administrators and teachers held a surprise assembly in the tent, where they had gifts wrapped for every student. The elementary kids received DVD players, the middle and high school students iPods -- all donated by the Chalmette-based Meraux Foundation. Each student also received a bike, thanks to WPLG Channel 10 in Miami. Close to 500 individuals, organizations and schools from across the United States and Canada and as far away as Singapore and Kazakhstan would send money, school supplies, computers and prom dresses during the school year.
By January, many students returned from schools outside St. Bernard, and enrollment swelled to approximately 1,600. Repairs to the cafeteria and roof were completed the day before the spring term began. Prior to that, administrators and cafeteria workers cooked breakfast, lunch and an after-school meal at the School Board offices -- the only place in the parish with gas -- and hauled food to the school three times a day.
By the end of the school year, 2,363 students from 14 public, five Catholic and three private schools attended SBUS. A diverse, traumatized student body filled the halls of Chalmette High, which before the storm had approximately 1,100 students.
"There was never any friction here," Warner says. "The kids were just happy to be here. I do think we are all here as one now."
WHEN AMANDA HEFFKER RETURNED TO her family's temporary trailer in Breaux Bridge after visiting her boyfriend in Alexandria, she didn't expect balloons and flowers. And she didn't expect a "Happy Ring Day" cookie cake.
She figured she'd never see the senior ring she ordered shortly before the storm, that it had suffered the same fate as the ground floor of her Chalmette home. But her mom, Debbie, had a surprise. The jeweler had gone back to see what could be saved. And there, in the same vault where it was left, he found a senior ring, green and muddy, with the initials A.H.
Admiring the silver ring with a heart-shaped Chalmette crest in its center, she says, "Yeah, my ring actually went through Katrina."
Amanda, her mom, older brother, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- everyone but her dad -- evacuated together the Saturday night before the storm to a cinder-block cabin at Lake Bistineau State Park outside Shreveport. Like most evacuees, everyone packed for a long weekend.
Everyone but Amanda, that is.
She still can't figure out why she emptied all her books and notebooks out of her locker -- her ground-floor locker -- the Friday before the storm. She knows she planned to do homework over the weekend, but she didn't have homework in every class.
She's not sure why she grabbed her transcripts, either.
But having a list of every class she'd taken and the grades she'd received has "really helped," she says.
Although her parents didn't move anything to the second floor before evacuating, Amanda went around the house picking up all the family photos from the end tables and throwing them on her bed.
Amanda's mom says her daughter has always been "very conscientious about what's going on around her." But since the storm, "she doesn't take anything for granted," and she doesn't ask for a new car to replace the one that flooded. "Now she's more concerned about our well being as a family, and the trials we go through daily."
During those first two weeks in the cabin, they had no idea if her dad had gotten out. "I was going nuts, of course," her mom Debbie says. "And of course my kids were crazy."
Amanda's dad had planned to stay through the storm. But late Sunday, his employer sent him to Baton Rouge. Jammed phone lines made it impossible for him to contact his family for weeks.
As Amanda and her friends watched the post-Katrina horrors unfold from motel rooms and cinder-block cabins, they tried to convince each other that their section of the parish had been spared.
"We were saying, 'Maybe it didn't hit us. Maybe it just hit New Orleans or further down in St. Bernard,'" she says. "But back in our heads, we all knew."
After a month at the park, her family moved into the trailer in Breaux Bridge. Over the next three months, they returned weekly to their brick-slab home, located three blocks from the Murphy Oil Refinery and one block from the river, to gut the ground floor.
Amanda and her family came back to a house surrounded by oil, with a ground floor in shambles and no flood insurance. The oil made it halfway up the driveway, and the water rose almost to the second floor. After the water receded, 6 inches of mud covered everything.
But Amanda held it all in until she climbed the steps to the second floor, stood in her bedroom doorway and saw all her Charmer dance team trophies, medals, photos and her Chalmette High bumper sticker.
"My dad started crying because I was crying," she says. "It just hit me. I thought, 'There's not going to be anymore Charmers, and Chalmette High may not be anymore.'"
Amanda has been dancing for almost as long as she's been walking. At 2, she started tap and jazz lessons at Sharon Thibodeaux's Dance Studio in Chalmette. At 10, she began taking lyrical and point lessons. If Katrina had not come, this year would have been her second, and final, year teaching the younger kids. And she would have graduated from the school with a diploma in dance.
"That studio," she says, "was literally my second home."
Because Amanda's bedroom is on the second floor, all her clothes, her photos, her high school memorabilia survived. Although she's quick to say how blessed she feels, she suffers from survivor's guilt.
"Sometimes I'll slip and say, 'I just need to get a few things from my room,' and Brandi is like 'Oh, I wish I had a room,'" Amanda says. "So it's hard. I feel guilty because I have almost everything, and [my friends] have nothing."
But when it came time to get ready for prom, Amanda and Brandi -- along with another friend, Maria Chilton -- didn't do their makeup and get dressed in Amanda's time-capsule bedroom. They met instead at Brandi's new, albeit temporary, home in Kenner.
Their moms came, too, to give their daughters makeup tips, to help fasten their bustiers, to clasp their rhinestone necklaces, to slip their feet into satin shoes -- to fuss over them and bask in the moment.
As the girls jockeyed for space in front of the mirror, Amanda's mom Debbie says to Brandi's mom Treasa, "Thank you so much for letting the girls get ready here. You know, there's not a lot of room in those FEMA trailers."
As Amanda's mom helps her slip on a white, strapless gown with satin buttons down the back, Amanda sees her reflection in the floor-length mirror and squeals, "I'm just so excited."
Amanda's dress was one of hundreds donated by students, teachers and parents at Eustis High School in Orlando, Fla. Along with the dresses, the school sent matching purses, jewelry and makeup kits to SBUS students.
Amanda always knew she wanted to wear a white dress for her senior prom, but she never thought it would be a $4,000 gown from Saks Fifth Avenue. The only white dress among the hundreds of donated dresses immediately caught her eye. But when she looked at the tag and saw size 4, she didn't think it would fit. Amanda is a size 6.
"I tried it on, and it just fit perfectly," she says. "Like it was meant to be."
After the girls were finished primping, they stood together in front of the mirror admiring each other's dress -- Brandi in a 1940s-style chocolate ball gown, Maria in a floor-length peach evening gown, and Amanda looking like a bride.
"Last year the style was heavy dresses with sequins," says Maria, whose home in Arabi was split in three. "This year, less is more."
BRANDI KNIGHT'S FAMILY HAS BEEN UNIversity of Florida Gator fans since before she was born. The family's hall bathroom in their current Kenner home is decorated in blue and orange memorabilia. The Gator "chomp" graces their mailbox. And when the school's basketball team recently won the National Championship, her dad and older brother threw a huge party.
But during the months Brandi and her family lived in Gainesville, Fla., home of the university, Brandi couldn't get back to St. Bernard Parish often enough.
She flew or drove to the parish almost every weekend to lead the Chalmette High Charmers' dance team practices. The highly competitive state competition was coming up, and the Mardi Gras parades were approaching fast.
"It was just something we had to do," says her mom Treasa.
From pom-pom to jazz numbers, Brandi has competed in solo and group divisions at the American All-Star dance competition since seventh grade. At this year's competition, she won first place, out of almost 50 competitors, for her lyrical, slow-jazz-style performance.
Approximately 35 Chalmette High students on the Charmers dance team competed in solo or duet numbers as well as the newly added exhibition performance -- for hurricane-ravaged schools. They didn't compete as a group with schools across the state because the girls lost months of practice time. The Charmers have won first and second place awards for years, so they didn't want to perform if they weren't at their best.
"It was hard for the girls to practice," Treasa says, "because people were spread all over the country."
The team did, however, have time to practice for Mardi Gras. In newly renovated classrooms or on Chalmette High's football field, the girls learned the steps, the kicks and the moves to parade with the Krewe of Thoth down St. Charles Avenue to Canal Street.
Brandi and her mom moved back in January, in time for Brandi to start the spring term at SBUS. Her dad Lonnie and brother Chris followed in February after Brandi's mom rented the first house she found, even though the monthly rent was double what they would have paid pre-Katrina.
Before returning, the family shuffled from motel room to motel room from Tunica, Miss., to Memphis to Houston. After a 30-hour drive fleeing Hurricane Rita, the family finally landed in a rent-free house in Gainesville near Brandi's aunt. Area churches donated furniture, bedding, towels and silverware, but without friends -- and no Bunny Bread or Chisesi ham -- the house and the town just didn't feel like home.
Brandi also had a hard time adjusting to her new school. Although she attended high school with her cousin, she had difficulty making friends of her own. She tried. She joined the dance team, but the other girls never included her in their after-school activities or in preparations for homecoming.
Her mom thinks the girls resented Brandi. After an impromptu audition in the school hallway, full of high kicks, leaps and double turns, the dance coach let Brandi walk on the team. And in doing so, she pushed another girl off.
"Most of the other girls couldn't do those moves," her mom says. "And Brandi did them in jeans."
Brandi's home in St. Bernard Parish has flooded seven times in the past 10 years. So the family knew to bring the photos and important documents with them when they evacuated. But they couldn't imagine the extent of flooding Katrina would bring.
For weeks after the storm, Brandi's family begged her uncle, who had stayed and was rescuing people in the parish, to check on their home. It took him three weeks to report back: their neighborhood took almost 30 feet of water.
Her parents have signed a one-year lease for their home in Kenner. They're going to wait and see how this year's hurricane season plays out before making any long-term plans.
"If a hurricane doesn't hit again this season, we'll probably stay," her mom says. Then she adds, "I don't know. I just don't think Chalmette will be the same for many, many years."
BEFORE THE STORM, 65,000 PEOPLE LIVED
in St. Bernard Parish. About 12,000 have returned. Residents say the parish was the kind of place where most kids stay after graduation or come back after college, to raise families. It's a place where everyone knows everyone, and people look after each other.
"In this community, every kid's parent and parent's parent grew up here," Warner says. "So you have generations here, and everyone's intertwined."
So the Saturday before Katrina, when Superintendent Voitier called Warner to say Chalmette High would be used as a shelter of last resort, Warner prepared the school just as he's done two or three times a year for the 32 years he's been principal.
"I felt that it was a way to pay back my community when it was in need," he says in a documentary the school produced about Hurricane Katrina. "Because that's what school people do."
Voitier, Warner, Mundt, a dozen or so teachers and a squad of firemen with a couple of EMTs manned the school. They brought in an industrial generator, put a few food and water supplies on the second floor and began taking in residents.
"As the people came in, they were representative of the past shelter evacuees," Warner says in the documentary. "Married couples, extended families with children, older people with no families, people who had relatives but were left behind, the sick and the disabled, people who had no means or no transportation to go anywhere else."
At 6 p.m. the evacuees ate what would be their last meal for nearly a week. Later that night, the school lost electricity. The generator broke. And parts of the roof blew off.
"As the storm subsided, we basically felt as if we had survived and that the weather would gradually get better," he says in the documentary. "Little did we know."
The following morning, the first responders stationed at the school began to get reports of rising water in Arabi. As water started to appear outside the school, people were quickly moved to the second floor.
"And then all of a sudden, the water was 5-feet high inside the school," he says in the documentary. "It came within 15 minutes. It was a mixture of marsh bottom mud, oil and gasoline, fish and grass. It came with a strong current, and it invaded every ground-floor room."
Most of the food, water and medicine had been stockpiled on the ground floor. The school staff rationed severely because they had so little food, and no one knew when they'd get out.
"Basically, our meals were a small bowl of Fruit Loops and a half a cup of water," he says in the documentary. "Or, a slice of bread and an individual serving of jelly -- and half a glass of water. One day, we had some peaches and a whole glass of water."
For days, they heard people crying for help from rooftops as scores of people were boated to the school. One woman was helicoptered out while giving birth. Another woman was already dead when rescuers brought her to the school. Her body lay in the gym for days.
Several days after the storm, the healthy people walked about a mile to the port where they were ferried across the river. The sick were taken out by boat a few days earlier.
Warner and 22 other school employees and their families finally left Friday morning, "in a hot-wired and changed-battery school bus and van."
It would be weeks before any of them would return.
"I really had to get my courage back up [before returning to the parish]," Mundt says. "I'd seen it on TV, but to experience it, that's a different story."
TWIN BROTHERS JASON AND JUSTIN TEMplet thought their mom Linda was overreacting when she made them fill the car with family photo albums.
"'Mom, we'll be back in a few days," Jason recalls saying. "They're so heavy. You don't need to take all those."
But a few days later, in a hotel room in Dallas, as they watched their city and their parish drown on TV, they realized the photos were their few possessions that had survived.
"We spent a lot of time in that hotel room looking at those photos," Jason says. "Now I realize how important pictures are."
Jason used to hate it when his mom pulled out a camera or video recorder. It seemed like she photographed every family event, every school event, and events that didn't seem much like events -- until now, that is.
Jason has since become the family and school photographer. He shot hundreds of photos during SBUS's recent senior trip to Orlando. And on the last day of school at SBUS, he interviewed and videotaped his teachers and fellow students.
When the final bell of the seniors' school year rang several weeks ago, and the halls filled with rushing students, Jason captured the chaos and revelry. He asked one teacher he passed in the hall, "What was it like spending the last eight years of your life with me?" She blew him a kiss and said, "Wonderful."
In addition to being a budding photographer, Jason is also a star athlete. He played center on SBUS's basketball team this year. For the three years before the storm, he played forward at Chalmette High.
Jason was one of only three returning varsity players. The rest were freshmen. Yet, in spite of the team's inexperience, they made it to the state playoffs. They got beat in the first game -- by the best team in the state.
His twin Justin isn't much interested in sports or photography. He's the writer in the family. And SBUS yearbook editor.
This spring, Justin along with approximately two dozen other seniors in Tom Dugger's English V class have embarked on a possible journalism career. The Atlantic Monthly, an internationally read magazine that boasts fiction and poetry, news and commentary, offered to help produce a magazine-style yearbook for students.
A group of staff members from the magazine came down "to see how best to help" in mid November, just as SBUS was opening. When they approached Voitier, Annie Linehan, program manager for The Atlantic Media Company's philanthropic arm, the ServiceCorps, recalls Voitier saying, "What we're really missing are the things that make school, school."
A yearbook matched the magazine's talents with the school's need.
Justin was a shoo in for editor. After all, he's the only student in Dugger's class with journalism experience.
He attended The Times-Picayune's three-week summer journalism workshop last summer. Of the 12 local students chosen to attend the highly competitive program, Justin was one of four students from a public high school. At the conclusion of the workshop, four of his stories were published in the paper's Summer Times insert. One of those pieces described how houses in New Orleans never belong to their current owners alone because the homes are filled with the footprints of hundreds of years of former residents.
He also wrote regularly for the St. Bernard Picayune his junior year.
Justin started a post-Katrina school newspaper called The Unifier. As the paper's editor and only writer, he wrote a story describing how Chalmette High was used as a shelter during Katrina as well as a piece detailing administrators' role in reopening the school.
As editor of the yearbook, Justin not only edits his fellow student's stories, he is also writing the introduction. Playing on this year's yearbook theme "Reflections," he plans to compare "Alice in Wonderland's" decision to "look through the looking glass" to SBUS students' post-Katrina experiences.
"She had the choice," he says, "but we didn't."
Jason covers the events held over the past year, events such as First Lady Laura Bush's two visits to SBUS. On the first lady's initial look and see trip to the school and the parish in January, she said during a news conference, "We're seeing what can happen when the few people who are left work as hard as they do to start really renewing school."
On her second trip in early May, she brought a check for $135,000. The Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries donated $75,000 to the library at Chalmette High and $60,000 to Andrew Jackson's library. All the books at parish schools were destroyed in the storm.
Jason is also responsible for making sure the team and club group photos make it into the yearbook, everything from the 4-H Club and Charmers, to the basketball, baseball, softball and track and field teams.
Amanda and Maria edit the yearbook's high school section, ensuring every student's photo is included and their names spelled properly.
As the senior section editors, Brandi and Olivia organize photos from the senior trip and prom as well as edit the senior reflections. Of the nearly 100 essays seniors submitted, each one reflected upon the storm.
Brandi wrote: "I see new faces in St. Bernard every day, and I know that if this school wasn't open, they probably wouldn't be back. I enjoy seeing old friends and old teachers because it makes me forget about what happened. I also love the fact that all of the different high schools, which used to be rivals and compete against each other, can now be unified."
This past year, Justin was named SBUS high school student of the year, based in part on his high GPA and writing experience, but also on an essay he submitted as a student-of-the-year finalist. In his essay, he discussed the Catch-22 St. Bernard faces in its quest to rebuild.
"In order to rebuild, the parish needed a school system," he recalls writing. "But in order to sustain a school, you need businesses and people. And those people need a place to live."
Jason and Justin's one-story home in the Lexington Place subdivision took close to 10 feet of water. This spring, they spent most weekends gutting it. They've cleaned out almost every room. But until their parents settle with the insurance company on whether damages to the garage door were caused by wind or water, the garage and the laundry room directly behind it will remain full of rotting former possessions.
"That first day back, it was horrible, just horrible," Justin says while standing in his gutted bedroom. "That day I came to the realization that that stage of my life was over."
THE ST. BERNARD SCHOOL BOARD RECE-ntly announced that the newly renovated Andrew Jackson High will reopen for elementary students in the fall. And if student enrollment continues to increase, the board is prepared to reopen Trist School in January 2007. Additional schools, such as St. Bernard High, Lacoste, P.G.T Beauregard, C.F. Rowley and NOVA may be renovated over the next year.
As the academic year at St. Bernard Unified School drew to an end, Justin, Jason, Brandi, Amanda and the other seniors at SBUS face daunting questions: Do they go off to college this fall? Or do they stay close to family and friends, hoping for a return to the familiar? If they do leave, how far do they go? Uptown? Baton Rouge? Mississippi?
In the on-going chronicle of decision and indecision, to stay or go, a reflection by Chalmette High and SBUS principal Wayne Warner seems to capture the feelings of everyone at the school and across the parish:
"When people ask me what's different now, being back in St. Bernard," he says at the conclusion of SBUS's in-house documentary, What School People Do, "I tell them this -- 'Now when people see each other, we don't shake hands. We hug. We celebrate. And we get back to the task of rebuilding our lives.'"