Children of Katrina Evacuees Adjust To School In Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Alexis Ainsworth sits in the front row of her fourth-grade classroom, studying quietly and making sure her fellow students in Bill Hanson's Rosecrest Elementary class have the correct papers for an upcoming assignment.

She's the oldest of three, which may explain her helpful way with other students. It's one of many skills she has had to practice since Hurricane Katrina landed her family in Utah more than a month ago.

Her younger brother, Dewontay, 6, is not adjusting as well. He has a hard time concentrating and often asks his kindergarten teacher, Karen Neeley, for help, even when he understands the concepts.

Their mother, Kesha Ainsworth, says that since the hurricane destroyed their Biloxi, Miss., home and that of Kesha's mother, Dewontay has reverted to more toddler-like behavior, asking her to tie his shoes and get him glasses of water. The fact that he's been without a permanent home since the hurricane hit Aug. 29 hasn't helped.

It took Ainsworth until Oct. 12 to find a Holladay-area duplex in which to live. Her children started school the next day.

They are among an estimated 50 students whose families have remained in Utah since being evacuated with about 400 others to the state in early September. Most evacuees since have made their way to relatives in other states, but Utah social service groups have helped some families find housing and jobs to start new lives in the state.

It hasn't been easy.

Kesha Ainsworth is among evacuees who received no help, either in finding housing or getting her children enrolled in school. That saddens Cheri Jacobson, Granite School District liaison for displaced students.

"I've failed the Ainsworths," she said. "Sometimes these kids fall through the cracks."

This year alone, she has worked with nearly 700 students, about 15 to 20 of whom are Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Those who left the temporary shelter at Camp Williams, where most evacuees were sent, were given Jacobson's phone number or those of her peers in other districts, but she knows some families never called.

As of Sept. 22, 18 evacuee children had registered in Jordan schools. Alpine and Weber had two each and Salt Lake City had one.

Jacobson has a hard time getting an accurate read on how many evacuee students are in her district because some of them registered, attended school for a short time and then moved.

Once displaced families contact her, she helps them find transportation, clothing, toiletries and school supplies.

Jacobson said many Katrina evacuees, and displaced students in general, are behind in school, not only because they are undergoing radical changes but because their previous schooling may have been lacking. Few students have academic records with them, so they are tested in reading, language and science when they start class to determine their functional grade level.

Jacobson accommodates parents' recommendation for grade level, then provides resource classes to bring the students to their peers' level.

She also provides contact information for various social service agencies, such as housing and therapy.

"It's all about the kids," she said. "I know the parents are doing the best they can, but we're here to do what's best for the child."

Ainsworth is happy to have her kids in school, although she wishes Utah followed Mississippi's lead in providing all-day kindergarten.

She found a job at a day-care center where 4-year-old Damion attends preschool. Alexis and Dewontay go to the center after school so she is able to be with them.

Dewontay is in afternoon kindergarten, so she has the early afternoon to continue her classes at Utah College of Massage Therapy.

"We have so much we've been blessed with, and we have so much to work for, but I couldn't ask for more," she said.

She has daily conversations with her children's teachers, making sure that Alexis is catching up and that Dewontay is adjusting. She knows the school is doing everything it can to welcome her children.

"They were very excited to get my children, and they've been understanding, helpful and have been making it easy for me and my kids," she said.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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