Kendell Goes Back To School

Kendell Goes Back To School
"I'm proud of my boy, going into the fifth grade," says Joe Robertson of son Kendell (at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. charter school Aug. 13)

10/26/2007 AT 06:00 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.

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