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Jania Kloeppel, 9, stayed close to fourth-grade teacher Libby White at Lucy Laney School on Wednesday. White said that Kloeppel, who lost her home in the tornado last month and is living in a shelter, has been very clingy since the storm. At least 40 percent of the 600-plus students have no regular home.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

A safe place after the storm

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL
  • Star Tribune
  • June 2, 2011 - 1:02 AM

David Branch has something in common with many of his students: He's technically homeless.

The principal at Lucy Laney School in north Minneapolis returned for his first full day of work Wednesday after last month's tornado tore through his neighborhood, impaling his roof with a tree and driving the family into a hotel.

In the storm's wake, Branch is in the same predicament as 25 percent of the school's 600-plus students who regularly bounce between other people's homes and shelters during normal times. That portion of students jumped to at least 40 percent after the tornado, school staff estimate.

And since the tornado, that staff has stepped up for its victims, securing 2,000 pounds in food donations, laundering clothes and logging many unpaid hours cataloging what students and their families needed in the twister's wake.

Less than 2 miles away at the disaster relief center at Farview Park, social workers and support staff teamed with Target Corp. and the district's teachers union to distribute books, school supplies and other aid.

"They provided hope and inspiration for our students," Branch said. "We want to return to normal."

But challenges remain at Lucy Laney, both big and small.

On Wednesday, staffers fretted about fallout from siren tests that happen the first Wednesday of each month. Once white noise, the siren's wail now has the potential to shake up already shocked children, school psychologist Lindsey Altman said.

"It's difficult to see all that destruction," Altman said. "The siren might trigger thoughts and feelings and bring all of that back up." Branch made an announcement shortly before 1 p.m. to alert students and ease any anxieties.

The tornado hit perilously close to home for some students. A tree crashed through Floyd Whitfield's van window, killing him. His passenger, a Lucy Laney student, survived.

In the past, the school has dealt with sudden staff deaths and the violence that permeates some portions of north Minneapolis, but "this felt different," social worker Edgar Young said.

First Katrina, then this

Being displaced by a natural disaster is nothing new for sixth-grader Ronisha Taylor. Her family lived in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, precipitating their move to Minnesota.

With their house uninhabitable, the Taylors are making do in a Maple Grove hotel.

After the tornado struck, teachers called up the Taylors and as many other families as they could reach, checking on their welfare and offering support.

Ronisha's father, Algie Taylor, was so moved that he called his mother in Louisiana to praise the staff.

"It was as though they were more concerned about us than their own," Algie Taylor said. "I was so proud. It's like another place to call home."

Like the Taylors, Branch's family is living out of a suburban hotel room.

But many of his students aren't as fortunate. Some families upended by the tornado can't turn to the relatives or friends who typically provide shelter in time of need; the storm wrecked some of their homes too.

"Many of our families are in limbo," Branch said. "It creates another level of uneasiness among the students."

Bouncing back

Without electricity to watch television or hear radio reports, several students straggled to school the day after the tornado, unaware that classes had been canceled.

When students did return to class last Tuesday, barely more than half showed, district records show. Close to 90 percent of students have returned, but long-term questions about enrollment remain.

In hopes of not disrupting their children's education, many parents are holding on until the school year ends before uprooting their families.

While other North Side schools' enrollments have slumped in recent years, Lucy Laney's has held steady, in part, because of an abundance of nearby rental properties.

Now the large number of damaged north Minneapolis rental properties has school leaders pondering what the storm will do to enrollment.

For now, staff at Lucy Laney and other North Side schools say they will work to aid the students they have. Most plan to continue to distribute food and clothing until the school year ends.

"With crisis comes stress, and you stood alongside our families to provide the extra support they need right now," Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson wrote in a note to Branch and his staff.

"Your caring spirit ... has helped students begin to bounce back from this traumatic experience."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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