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Schools court tornado zone kids to return to classroom

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Welcoming students
Teachers Treka Hannah, left, and Brenda Sieh welcome students as they arrive at the Head Start summer program at the Donald M. Fraser Early Childhood Family Development Center in Minneapolis, Minn. on Tuesday, July 26, 2011. The free program offers children of families affected by the tornado in north Minneapolis a safe place to play and learn.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The May tornado that destroyed hundreds of houses in north Minneapolis uprooted school children who resided there. Some families are still living in hotels and shelters or doubling up with relatives in other cities until they can move back in or find permanent housing.

The Minneapolis Public School system is courting those students over the summer, to make sure they're back in the classroom come fall.

Two weeks before school let out for the summer, the tornado cut a three-mile swath of destruction through the city's north side. A half dozen schools serve the area, including Lucy Craft Laney Elementary.

Principal David Branch wonders if students whose homes in the path of the storm are still in the neighborhood. And he worries there might be fewer kids in their desks when the first school bell rings in three weeks.

"We have about 610 students on our enrollment list. But who comes through the door?" he said. "We won't know until we have until the first few days, or first few weeks, of school."

Branch, a longtime north sider, says he's become more patient as he learns firsthand what it means to be left homeless by the storm.

STORM LEAVES PRINCIPAL HOMELESS, TOO

The tornado toppled a tree onto his own house on Knox Avenue, smashing the rear wall and gouging the roof. As he and his wife wait for repairs, they've spent the past two and a half months in three different hotels as they chase vacant rooms. 

Playing at recess
Head Start students play during recess at the Donald M. Fraser Early Childhood Family Development Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, July 26, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

They're now sharing a one-bedroom hotel suite in Maple Grove with two kids and a Shiba Inu puppy named Kuma.

The family's clothes are stacked in clear plastic boxes around the living room, and groceries are piled high on the counters of their tiny kitchenette. The room is suited more for short corporate trips than for a family indefinitely shut out of their house.

"It's small, and I think when we go back, our house is going to feel really big," said Branch's son Noah, who's 12. 

Branch's wife, Becky, says in the days after the tornado, she was consumed with finding housing and battling with the insurance company. That left little energy for her to focus on things she normally would have, such as whether her kids finished their homework or had a pencil for class.

She gets emotional when she recalls driving them to school one morning when it dawned on her that they had not eaten.

"We came to the Red Cross truck that was handing out breakfast to people, and I walked up asked, 'Is this for anybody?' They said, 'Yes,'  and I said, 'Can my kids have breakfast?'" she recalled. "All I can think of how people who do this every day swallow their pride to keep their kids fed. It's been really eye opening."

It's been eye opening, her husband says, because schools like his on the north side of Minneapolis have traditionally served poor families with higher rates of homelessness and mobility. Branch says hopes the experience makes him a better principal.

Chatting with students
Head Start summer program coordinator Salena Davis chats with Alex Griffin, 8, about a worm he found outside the Donald M. Fraser Early Childhood Family Development Center in Minneapolis, Minn. Tuesday, July 26, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"I'll be honest with you. I could never understand how families could move from three or four or five places in one year. We do have families who are that transient," said Branch. "Having that experience and not being able to control where I can stay, I understand.  It happens, and we have to support the children and the families to let them know we're here."

There is no official number for displaced students, but the district is targeting what they're calling 200 "highly impacted" kids who were were absent during the spring because of the twister. Staff are also calling parents and knocking on doors of families affected by the storm. 

Last week, Minneapolis Public Schools held a summer enrollment open house on the north side as part of a broader effort to register students displaced by the tornado.  

Even if families have temporarily relocated outside the city, federal law ensures free busing or taxi service so students can continue to attend schools within the district.

SUMMER SCHOOL HELPS WITH TRANSITION

At a new Head Start summer program serving families from the tornado zone, teachers greet kids walking off yellow school buses. The special program at the Fraser center provides an early look into what kind of needs schools will be addressing in the fall.

LaTanya Fox-Martin, 5, says she gets a bit shaken when a bad storm rumbles through town.

"Sometimes I feel like going down to the basement and screaming," she said.

School counselors are on site to help kids with any lasting trauma. In fact, the early childhood center is also a social service hub, connecting parents with food shelves, housing leads and clothing. Parent-child advocate Sandra Lopez says she knows of 10 families who are still displaced, yet are in denial that they are homeless.

"Some will say, 'Well, but I live with my parents, or my aunt, or my sister.' And I'm like, 'Yeah, but you don't have home you can call a home.' They have no privacy. They are in need of housing," she said. 

Despite the day-to-day struggles, the kids come to summer school, ready to learn and roam the playground. It's a safe refuge for kids whose own streets resemble a massive construction zone.

For these kids and their educators, school is one important step to getting back to normal.