With less than two hours to go before her graduation from Howard University, Talitha Halley, 22, stood in front of her dorm-room closet, staring down at the tangle of shoes on the floor, wondering which pair to wear—the red heels or, perhaps, the snakeskin print. She turned to Angelica Cooper, her best friend since middle school, for help.

Talitha Halley is all smiles as she heads to her college graduation. It was a day her mother says Halley’s been preparing for since she was a little girl. Halley went from the parochial school she’d attended since kindergarten in New Orleans to public schools in Houston after fleeing Katrina. © Peggy Barmore

Not long before, the two had been rummaging through the jumble of clothes, sheets and miscellany on Halley’s bed, trying to figure out if they had enough press-on rhinestones to spell out Halley’s personal statement on her graduation cap: “Everything I am not made me everything I am,” the title of a song by Kanye West.

Halley is “determined for greatness,” according to her sister, Regina Halley, 33. That, she says, is why her little sister not only survived Hurricane Katrina, but went on to graduate from a prestigious university with a 3.2 grade point average.

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Now, new research promises to explore how children and adults, including young people like Talitha Halley—Katrina’s success stories—made it. How does someone raised in a low-income community with few resources before the disaster, and even fewer after, get beyond the trauma to succeed in school and life? And, can the experiences of a Talitha Halley and others like her provide lessons on how to help next time?

On Sunday, Aug. 28, 2005, the day Katrina would inundate the city, Talitha and Regina Halley were home in the one-story shotgun house they shared with their mother in New Orleans’ lower Ninth Ward. It was the second of two houses the family had moved into that summer—a better house in a better neighborhood. “Everything was coming together, finally,” the younger Halley reflected.

The two monitored news and weather reports about an approaching hurricane, and, as the news became increasingly alarming, the sisters called their mother at her job as a caregiver to an elderly couple across town and told her, “We need to go.”

Hurricane Katrina displaced 160,000-plus children when it hit the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi in the summer of 2005. More than 100,000 were school-aged, between 5 and 19 years old, according to a 2007 study by the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. While the states’ education departments kept track of those who stayed and those who moved back, they couldn’t follow what happened to tens of thousands of children like Halley who never returned to their home states to complete their educations.

As the 10th anniversary of Katrina approaches, researchers and sociologists want to know more about the children who have somehow managed to thrive after surviving the trauma of Katrina, particularly those in Halley’s demographic, who were between the ages of 10 and 14 at the time of the hurricane and are now in their early 20s. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable during a disaster, according to some experts, and some of the children who were in this age group in 2005 are now reaching a key milestone: college graduation.

In the 2007 study, a team of researchers led by David Abramson, now clinical associate professor at New York University’s Global Institute of Public Health, documented the impact of the disaster on children who stayed in or returned to states impacted by Katrina. The team found lower educational achievement, loss of access to health care, and an increase in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems. A later study, by Abramson and colleagues at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in 2010, concluded that children exposed to the Katrina disaster were five times more likely than a comparable group of children not exposed to Katrina to show signs of serious emotional disturbance.

Now, Abramson and his colleague Lori Peek, co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University and a co-author of the forthcoming book Children of Katrina, are interested in “resilience outliers”—people who do exceptionally well even in dire circumstances.

Social scientists hope that studying how young people like Halley and her peers managed to not only survive Katrina, but, a decade later continue to do well, will give them valuable insights into the recovery process for adolescents as well as into the long-term effects of disasters on children. The findings could help schools, healthcare providers and policymakers better prepare to meet the post-disaster needs of children before the next Katrina or Superstorm Sandy or 9/11 hits.

“It’s something of enormous interest,” said Abramson.

“You can learn not only what makes a difference within the child herself or himself, but what are all of the social supports that if you built them in—if you helped the household, if you helped the kids, if you helped the school districts, if you helped the communities—would make a huge difference,” he said.

The researchers have never spoken with Halley, but they see stories like hers as an opportunity to help fill the research gap.

“We know very, very little about the long-term effects of these disasters on [Katrina’s] children,” said Alice Fothergill, associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and co-author of “Children of Katrina.” “We’re trying to figure out how to reduce suffering … so [in the future] there are fewer negative outcomes for children,” she said.

Schools matter, but how much?

Geneva Halley stands amid the moving boxes in her daughter’s dorm room. When she and her two daughters fled Katrina’s floodwaters, they had little time to pack. © Peggy Barmore

Geneva Halley looked around at the boxes stacked in her daughter’s dorm room and wondered out loud where to move them. If she had her way, she said, they’d go right to the other side of campus where the law school is located. But her daughter has put off pursuing a law degree for the time being.

Still, the decision on what to do with the boxes could wait a couple of days — a far cry from their frantic move in 2005. When the family abandoned their home ahead of the Katrina floodwaters and made their way to the Louisiana Superdome, they threw together Halley’s new tennis shoes, family birth certificates, social security cards, high school diplomas, some clothes, a jar of peanut butter, Vienna sausages and a cup of pennies — all the money they had — in a matter of minutes.

“I remember everything,” Talitha Halley said of the family’s week at the Superdome, “sleeping in chairs… kind of eating military food… the restrooms being really disgusting… My mom and the hurt on her face — like, ‘I’d worked so hard.’”

What Halley couldn’t process, she blocked out: “I blocked it out for a really long time thinking, ‘It’s ok. That people go through it. That there are a bunch of people who’ve been through it.’”

The family was bused from the Superdome to Houston’s Astrodome, where they stayed for just a day before being bounced around a few more times.

Eventually, they settled into a two-bedroom apartment in a multi-unit complex in Sharpstown, Texas, a rapidly diversifying community in southwest Houston with a crime rate nearly double the national average and a school district with a graduation rate below the national average.

Halley enrolled at Sharpstown Middle School in October 2005—two months after leaving New Orleans. This was relatively quick; some displaced students moved as many as nine or more times after evacuating and missed a year or more of school, according to Peek and Fothergill’s research for their forthcoming book. Some 5,000 students enrolled in the Houston Independent School District, which includes Sharpstown, following Katrina.

“It was very, very different,” said Halley, who had attended St. Louis Cathedral, a parochial school in New Orleans. “The people I went to school with in New Orleans were the people I grew up with since a little, little girl.”

Halley’s mother tried to enroll her in parochial school, but there were only a couple of schools in Sharpstown and they were full. From Sharpstown Middle School, Halley went on to Sharpstown High, a notorious “dropout factory,” with a six-year graduation rate of under 60 percent. Her mother wasn’t worried, however. “I knew she could make it anywhere she went,” Geneva Halley said. “It was in her. You could see it from a small child.”

Public schools proved easy for Halley: “I was smart. I was doing the work like clockwork.” School had been harder in New Orleans, she said. “We were learning at a faster rate.”

In trying to understand how the Katrina diaspora has fared, one of the questions researchers are grappling with is whether students who left New Orleans ended up better off academically than if they had stayed, given the reputation of the city’s public schools as some of the worst in the nation. But New Orleans also had the highest percentage of students—including low-income students like Halley—enrolled in private schools, meaning many—like Halley—may have ended up in lower-performing schools after the hurricane.

Peek and Abramson said they haven’t come across statistics on the number of students who went from private schools in New Orleans to public schools elsewhere after Katrina. However, as part of that 2007 study, interviewers asked the parents of 265 school-aged children in Louisiana and Mississippi to rate their child’s school performance before Katrina and four years later, Abramson said. Eighty-five percent of the students attended public schools, 12 percent were in private schools, 2 percent in parochial schools and 2 percent were home-schooled, he said. Some 35 percent of parents ranked their child’s academic performance as worse than before Katrina; 40 percent indicated it was the same; and 25 percent said their child was doing better.

“It’s such a complicated question to ask about the quality of schools and the quality of life because there are a lot of different domains of kids’ lives that were affected by this disaster.”

But Halley found a niche at Sharpstown High School despite the school’s problems. She made friends with students from New Orleans and Houston, played volleyball and softball, ran track and took Advanced Placement classes.

While many students displaced by Katrina were held back a year or placed in remedial courses, Halley said she was placed in advanced classes beginning in middle school. “Maybe I got dealt a really good hand of teachers,” she said. “I ended up like a higher grade of science in middle school, a higher grade of English, but not math. They tried that. It didn’t work.”

Halley was one of 343 students her freshman year at Sharpstown and one of only 177 to graduate four years later in 2011.

Kacie Cooper, who taught geometry and AP statistics when Halley was at Sharpstown, credits Halley’s success to “a lot of hard work” on Halley’s part. Cooper said that if she had to guess, only “five, six or seven percent of [Halley’s] graduating class is graduating from college this year and next.”

Geneva Halley jokes about her daughter’s unbridled enthusiasm for school: “Everybody went psycho crazy and she went education crazy.”

Halley’s experience — success at a school in which success was relatively rare — underscores the complexity of the question with which researchers are grappling.

“People wanted the simple, ‘Oh, they’re better off because they got out of those bad New Orleans schools,’ or, ‘They were way worse because they ended up in even more disadvantaged communities without the strength of their family networks,’” said Peek.

“It’s such a complicated question to ask about the quality of schools and the quality of life because there are a lot of different domains of kids’ lives that were affected by this disaster,” she added.

The importance of community

Elaine Wynn, right, chair of the board of directors for Communities In Schools, congratulates Talitha Halley. In the years since Halley fled Katrina, the organization helped her realize her goal of graduating from Howard University. © Peggy Barmore

Although Halley seemed to thrive in Houston, she missed New Orleans—a sentiment shared by many children displaced by Katrina, regardless of race or family income, researchers found.

“[Researchers] can learn not only what makes a difference within the child herself or himself, but what are all of the social supports that if you built them in — if you helped the household, if you helped the kids, if you helped the school districts, if you helped the communities — would make a huge difference.”

“Sometimes kids did end up in ‘better schools’ that were higher performing, had better test scores, higher graduation rates, more qualified teachers, etc.,” said Peek. “But, they might have ended up in a neighborhood context where they no longer had any family around them. Even if the children were in a better school context, they were so lonely and missing New Orleans so bad that they couldn’t reap the full benefit of the school.”

Halley found a strong support network of encouraging peers and positive adult role models that helped make up for the loss of friends and family who moved back to New Orleans. Sharpstown High School didn’t have a guidance program, but it did have Communities In Schools—a national dropout prevention program that concentrates its efforts in areas of high poverty.

Three hundred students arrived at Sharpstown High from New Orleans, according to Donna Wotkyns, one of two clinical social workers assigned to the Communities In Schools’ site at the high school shortly after Katrina.

“They didn’t know each other, and they didn’t know where they were,” Wotkyns said. “We were there to bring them together.”

A Katrina group—later renamed the New Orleans group—was formed in response to the need the counselors saw.

For students like Halley, who had just entered the high school, the group provided the only counseling they’d been given since Katrina landed them in Houston two years earlier.

“I’d never been in a group setting with a bunch of kids from New Orleans with an adult who was kind of navigating us and helping us talk about our feelings and everything that was going on,” Halley said. “I engaged with [Communities In Schools]. I had somebody making sure I was going to school every day. I had somebody making sure that when I got to school, I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I had someone making sure that for at least two days out of the week I was eating.”

Communities In Schools helped make Halley’s goal of becoming a Congressional Page a reality, assisted her with the college application process and found the funding for school once she was accepted.

“It’s above and beyond what most kids can expect,” Abramson said of the help Halley received. Most schools didn’t and still don’t have “the wherewithal, the knowledge, the capacity or the expertise” to do what Communities In Schools did.

The support and financial help the organization provided Halley “seems totally natural for folks who have means,” said Daniel Cardinali, national president of Communities In Schools, but is “a big deal” for those without.

The role of adults and organizations that “stepped up as advocates was enormous for children getting back to stability,” Fothergill said.

Halley says the most important lesson she learned from her experiences and her support network is that “you won’t ever be in one situation for too long whether that [is] a good situation or a bad one.”

In May, when Halley walked across the stage at Howard University in her cap, gown and snakeskin-print heels, her mother, father, sister, cousins, friends and Communities In Schools family cheered together from the bleachers. On that day, she received both a degree in political science and a commitment from family and friends that they will continue to support her as far as she wants to go.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more of their coverage of New Orleans.

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