Friday, March 13, 2009

Recovering New Orleans school has big dreams, plans for success

Athletic director of George Washington Carver Senior High School Brian Bordainick, left, student, Richard Davis, center, and coach Shyrone Carey, stand next to the school sign Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009 in New Orleans. A lifeline for students who are struggling to re-establish a sense of normalcy, Carver High School is a centerpiece of an ambitious plan to restore pride in the 9th Ward community. (AP Photo/ Judi Bottoni)

George Washington Carver Senior High School students leaving school walk through a devasted area across from the school Thursday, March 5, 2009 in New Orleans. The area was flooded during Hurricane Katrina Aug. 29, 2005. A lifeline for students who are struggling to re-establish a sense of normalcy, Carver High School is a centerpiece of an ambitious plan to restore pride in the 9th Ward community. (AP Photo/ Judi Bottoni)


Associated Press Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — George Washington Carver High School — a collection of prefabricated buildings that sprang up amid the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — has always been a fertile ground for dreamers.

Just ask Carver graduate and former NFL star Marshall Faulk.

"A lot of life-lessons were taught at that school and in that football program," he said. "My coach got me off the street and taught me to believe in myself. That's what football can do in a school where kids don't have a lot of other things."

Carver is the centerpiece of an ambitious plan to restore pride in the 9th Ward community and a lifeline for students who are struggling to re-establish their lives after the devastating storm forced them to flee the city.

The school's football team and band are back, and a $1.8 million proposal to build a football stadium and Olympic-quality track is gaining steam.

"It would be for more than just Carver, everybody in the city could use it," said Brian Bordainick, Carver's 23-year-old athletic director, who hustles the plan constantly. "We want this to be what revives youth sports in New Orleans."

The effort got a big boost Monday, when the New Orleans Saints announced a $200,000 grant for what Bordainick calls the "9th Ward Field of Dreams."

Before the announcement of the grant through the NFL Grassroots Program, more than $855,000 had been raised from public and private sources. Donations in small amounts are coming in from individuals, community groups and churches.

"We've all lost so much here," said Mary Lodge Evans, a 1962 Carver graduate and president of the alumni association. "As far as a community, we still have a long way to go, but the school is giving us something to rally around."

The 531 students — down from 1,200 pre-Katrina — are drawn from all over New Orleans. They are mostly poor and mostly black. Principal Vanessa Eugene said many students' lives were disrupted by the storm, and some were homeless or living with someone other than a parent.

Some were out of school for a year or two.

"It's things like our sports and the band that have brought these kids together," Bordainick said.

"They are very proud of what we're doing here, and feel very much a part of it. That's a big thing for kids who have lost so much."

Katrina devastated the Carver neighborhood in August 2005, pouring a dozen feet of water into its modest homes and small businesses. Most remain empty, still bearing high-water marks and the circled Xs searchers left as they looked for storm victims.

At present there is no timetable for removing the old school, let alone beginning construction on a new one, Bordainick said.

But in temporary classrooms and athletics on the hard-hit Carver school grounds, life is returning.

"I'd like to get a football scholarship," said Richard Davis, 17, who shuffled between New Orleans and Texas for two years after Hurricane Katrina. "But if I don't get that, I'm pretty good in math, so that's a possibility for a scholarship."

The school has a track team, which does practice runs in the streets around the school — pounding past empty houses. The softball team's practice field is a vacant lot covered with stubble.

The football team, always Carver's claim to fame, had a string of district championships from 1997 through 2004.

Faulk starred for the Rams before heading to the NFL, ending up as a St. Louis Ram.

At Carver then, and now, Faulk said, extracurricular activities keep kids off the streets.

"In that area, you don't have a lot to keep kids in school," Faulk said. "Carver is their best hope."
Faulk's foundation will hold a fundraiser for the sports complex this summer.

The football team, which has sent at least four players to the NFL, was reduced to 28 players last year. They practiced in an abandoned lot behind the school trailers. The kickers practice on a single goal post that frames an abandoned house.

The Rams had no stadium before Katrina, so they continued playing home games at a field across town. They lost every game on the 2008 schedule.

The new players had almost no experience.

"We had to show them things like how to take a three-point stance, how to line up," coach Shyrone Carey said.

This year, with only one player lost to graduation, there is optimism.

"I think we're a lot more comfortable, and in a lot better shape," said Tevin Ratcliff, 16, a wide receiver who hopes to earn a football scholarship.

Carey thinks that might not be just a pipe dream.

"I think some of these kids will be good enough for junior college or Division III scholarships," said Carey, who played at LSU. "They are hard workers."

The band is back, too, clad in new green and orange uniforms.

"We were wearing these real loud orange jogging suits," band director Frank Lewis said. "This year, we're looking sharp. The kids love it."

If things go as planned, ground will be broken for the stadium in July. A track meet is set for February 2010.

"I'm all for it," said Walter Mason, 56, who returns to the area to go to church, but has not yet restored his home. "Maybe it will let people know we're still alive back here."
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