Kendell Goes Back to School

updated 08/27/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/2007 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Ten-year-old Kendell Lewis hops down from the steps of his trailer to take a visitor on a child's-eye tour of what remains, and what is gone, from the streets of his old neighborhood. "I had friends there, lots of them," he says outside an abandoned house with boarded-up windows in the Lower Ninth Ward. "Kadija, Vernon, Tyris and Ariane. But I don't get to play with them now." Farther up the block, collapsed shells of houses lie in multicolored heaps. The park where, Kendell says, "I used to hit a ball with my bat" is now deserted, grown over with weeds taller than a little boy.

On the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, everywhere in this neighborhood near where the levee broke it's the same: front porch stairs that lead to nowhere, hand-scrawled street signs replacing ones that washed away, the only sound in the swamp heat the ceaseless chirping of crickets. "I would ride my bike up and down my street and say hello to the people," says Kendell. "Most of them are all gone."

But at the corner of Caffin and Claiborne Avenues, in the middle of the desolation, is an unexpected vision: a newly refurbished school building with freshly painted butter-yellow pillars, a newly sodded sports field and gleaming monkey bars and slide. On Aug. 13, thanks to the efforts of one very determined principal, Kendell and his little sister Kiara, 7, were among 650 students filing in to first-day classes at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science & Technology—the only school to reopen in one of the city's most devastated neighborhoods. "I'll get to be there," Kendell says, anticipating that day, "and it makes me feel good."

Even before Katrina, New Orleans was a city with plenty of rough edges: In the Lower Ninth, more than a third of the children lived below the poverty line and the crime rate was 10 times higher than in New York City. But with all the lives and homes, the roads and jobs, that washed away with the storm, something else crucial was lost: Over half of the city's 120 public schools—already ranked among the worst-performing in the nation—were damaged or destroyed.

From the house in Dallas to which she had evacuated with her family, elementary school principal Doris Hicks watched on CNN as the neighborhood where she spent her girlhood and built a career seemed to drown in the floodwaters. "Thirty-five of our families did not make it out," says Hicks, 64. "The family found clinging and holding onto one another; the grandmother who was discovered months later in an attic. The mother who lost hold of her 2-year-old in the flood, who then perished with her remaining children in a fire. The stories go on and on...."

In the wake of the storm, officials, from the Secretary of the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development to New Orleans's mayor, pondered whether the Lower Ninth should even be rebuilt. "People were talking about writing us off, and I didn't like that," says Hicks. "It was personal for me."

The principal of what was then called the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for Science & Technology, Hicks had deep roots in the neighborhood. The youngest of 11 children whose father was killed by a hit-and-run driver the year she was born, she was raised there by her childless aunt and uncle.

As a little girl, she was a voracious reader. "I would pick up everything," she says, "especially books about occupations. I liked to dream about what my place in the world might be." By high school, at a time when "girls weren't told they could do anything in a career," the matter was settled. She decided to become a teacher, and "I have never, never thought of any occupation since that day."

When it seemed that the government was abandoning the education of the city's least privileged children, an idea came to Hicks and then crystallized. "Opening our school back in the Lower Ninth Ward would be proof that this neighborhood is not doomed," she says. "People would come back, because the school was back."

At the time, Kendell Lewis's family wasn't so sure. After evacuating to Houston in one of the family's two cars—"The other one floated away," says Kendell's mother, Tanya, 34—the family anxiously huddled in a hotel room, watching the news in horror as the levees broke one by one. "The third breach, I knew our house was under water," Tanya says. "I knew we weren't ever going back to New Orleans."

The Lewis-Robertsons—Tanya Lewis, her husband, Joe Robertson, 46, a steak house manager, and kids Larry, now 16, Kendell, Kiara and Tanyelle—settled into a cramped apartment and focused on a new future. Joe had work at a restaurant, and the kids, three of whom had attended Doris Hicks's old school back in the Lower Ninth, were now enrolled in Houston. But they weren't happy about it. "The kids kept asking for their school. They wanted to go back to Martin Luther King," says Tanya. "I thought that Larry, as the oldest, would understand more than the littler ones how hard it would be for us in New Orleans. But he cried like a baby. They all kept at us to come home and go to their school in New Orleans."

At the end of 2005, the family took a reconnaissance trip back to their old neighborhood. "I took one look at what was left of our home, and I knew I couldn't live there," says Tanya, who lost all her family photographs, save for one baby picture of Tanyelle. "Everything was dead—the trees, the grass. There weren't even birds in the sky. I told Joe, 'There's no way I can live like this. I'll die out here.'"

Kendell describes the trip: "I looked in my house and the refrigerator had fallen over in our living room. The dresser was on top of the bed. All our toys had been in the cabinet, and that was gone." Tanyelle, now 5, searched for her Barbie dolls. "I couldn't find them anywhere," she says. To Kiara, "It looked like our house, except that everything was black from the mold."

Even so, back in Houston, the kids continued their lobbying. In June 2006 came a phone call with news from Tanya's brother Roy Lewis back in New Orleans. He had seen signs posted around the Lower Ninth announcing the King school was going to reopen, that it was registering kids for classes. When, at a Fourth of July barbecue, Tanya and Joe gathered the kids around and announced they'd be moving back, "Kendell and Kiara jumped around and screamed," she says. "And Tanyelle, who'd been in Head Start when the storm came, was excited because she was going to get to go to 'big school.'"

And so, the following month, the family packed their belongings in a rented U-Haul and made the 10-hour drive, moving into two FEMA trailers in the former parking lot of an abandoned dry cleaners around the block from their battered three-bedroom single-story house on Lizardi Street. The family celebrated with dinner at the steak house where Joe was back at work. Over ribeye, shrimp and lamb chops, says Tanya, "we were all talking about how good it was to be home."

While they'd been gone, Doris Hicks, whose own East New Orleans house survived undamaged, had been hard at work. "I was angry because there were people in the city where I was born who did not believe that children of color should be educated in an appropriate environment," she says. Facing the confusion of a city-run school system that had collapsed and not yet rebounded (see box), she determined that the best course of action was to form a charter school. With the help of her old teachers and staff, scattered as far away as Baton Rouge, she secured one of the city's first post-Katrina school charters and commandeered $7.8 million in FEMA funds to cover the loss of the school. Finding support for her crusade wasn't easy: At one point, members of a consulting firm that had received $29.3 million in public funds to oversee rebuilding of the city's schools threatened to have volunteers helping Hicks thrown in jail, citing safety concerns. In front of local news crews, she then presented an engineering report of her own stating that the building was structurally sound.

Nevertheless the building was seriously flood-damaged, with broken windows, no electricity and water-logged debris in the hallways. Workmen found dead flounder on the second floor, where 14 feet of water had stood, and since the flood, termites had begun to move in. There was no choice but to rebuild, says Hicks, who supervised from a makeshift office in a nearby vacant school.

Last summer, a crew of 500 volunteers from Common Ground, some wearing white Hazmat suits with the words "Open This School" painted on the back, began demolition. Hicks says that her lowest point came on Sept. 6, 2006, when students gathered on the steps of the dilapidated Colton Middle School, where, for time being, she had hoped to set up classes. On that day, despite her best efforts, the temporary school was uninhabitable—mold-covered and filled with stench from rot and clogged toilets. "I remember the faces of those kids," she says. "They were getting their assignments outside, cars passing by. The little girls were all dressed up with their ribbons, ready for school. And I could not provide a roof."

Two weeks later, Hicks managed to open classes in a borrowed elementary school on Willow Street that had only stood in waist-deep water. Meanwhile, across town, crews began rebuilding Martin Luther King, including an adjoining public library and room for community events. Finally, this past June 10, with yellow streamers draped around its entrance pillars and a fanfare by the Original Pinstripe Brass Band and New Orleans's Zulu Walking Warriors, the new school was rededicated before a standing-room crowd of more than 650 parents, students and dignitaries, many wearing "MLK Dream Team" T-shirts. "This school can serve as a beacon," says Rob Logan, director of charter schools for the Recovery School District, looking back on the long reconstruction project, "and Doris Hicks was the one who went to the mountaintop and rang the bell."

On a warm summer morning, the three youngest Lewis-Robertson kids are bouncing around their cramped FEMA trailer as their mom cooks a breakfast of turkey and scrambled eggs on a tiny gas stove. Kendell packs his food onto a slice of white Bunny Bread, carefully folds it and then pours syrup on each bite of his creation. "I don't even know what he's doing," says Tanya with a sigh. "He loves the syrup."

The family has made little headway rebuilding their old house. With no insurance to cover their losses, Joe and Tanya are hacking through paperwork, including four title searches and mountains of applications for federal recovery funds. Outside their cramped quarters—Tanya and their three youngest sleep in one trailer, Joe and the oldest, Larry, in the other—Kendell says he sometimes feels sad on the quiet streets of the old neighborhood. "I didn't know any people that died," he says, "but you see all the damages and you know some people did."

Not long ago he had a dream that his big brother was being chased by a gang. "When he made it to the corner, some people had beat him up and killed him." He told his mom. "She said everything was going to be all right as long as I pray," he says. "So I pray. I pray that my mom [who has Crohn's disease] doesn't get sick and go into the hospital. I pray that my brother is safe and my sisters are okay. And I pray that we don't have to live on the street."

For the past 10 months, the three youngest kids have been attending classes at a nearby temporary school. But in anticipation of their first day back at Martin Luther King, they line up their school supplies, as excited as if it were Christmas morning. "I got scissors, paper, notebooks and some journals," says Kiara, showing off her pink-and-gray backpack.

Those aren't the only reasons that the kids are glad, at long last, to be back where they belong. "Our school is right there," says Kiara, "like it's always been right there." As for Kendell, he has only one worry about his new school. "It is so beautiful that some kids might get distracted looking at how good it really is," he says.

But when they regain their focus, they will surely see things as he does. "The school makes me want to live here," he says, with the certainty of a child. "I look at it, and everything feels good."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM. You can find more stories about Katrina's aftermath from other Time Inc. magazines at time.com/katrina.

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