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The graduates celebrate with Heather Holdsworth, who helped start Desire Street Academy

Strong Desire

Education | Two years after Katrina, floods greet a 9th Ward Christian school as it returns to celebrate a triumphant graduation

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

NEW ORLEANS- For Jonah Leavell, flooding is a familiar foe. The 18-year-old New Orleans native fled his home in the city's 9th Ward nearly two years ago, as Hurricane Katrina closed in on the Gulf Coast. Less than a week later, large swaths of New Orleans were under water, and miles of homes, including Leavell's, were in ruins.

Leavell returned to the still-devastated 9th Ward late last month, but this time the occasion was a happy one: Leavell was graduating from high school. That's a particularly striking accomplishment for Leavell and his 13 fellow seniors, who made up the first graduating class of Desire Street Academy, a Christian school for at-risk, urban boys. The school faced extinction when Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters engulfed its 9th Ward campus.

The academy, which survived as a boarding school in Florida and Baton Rouge, held graduation ceremonies at the refurbished 9th Ward facility on May 23. The seniors and their displaced families faced a smaller, but familiar, trial on graduation day: another flood. With a week to go before the official start of hurricane season, rain poured and water rose nearly two feet on low-lying Desire Street. Chaplain Reynaldo King reminded the crowd in prayer: "Even when the storms rise in our lives, our anchor holds."

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Presbyterian (PCA) minister Mo Leverett founded Desire Street Ministries (DSM) in 1990 with the goal of gospel-based renewal in the spiritually and socially stormy 9th Ward, which was then one of the most poverty-stricken and crime-ridden neighborhoods in the country.

After 10 years of tenacious youth ministry and discipleship, DSM launched Desire Street Academy (DSA), a Christian school for urban boys, beginning with 7th grade. In a neighborhood full of single mothers in rows of public housing, DSM believed transforming young men was key to transforming the neighborhood and breaking cycles of inter-generational poverty, crime, and broken families.

The school opened at the ministry's 9th Ward facility in 2002. Sitting on bleachers in the school's gym on the eve of his graduation last month, Leavell remembered that first day. "We were a little skeptical," he told WORLD. Leavell and his fellow classmates had grown up in local public schools, where crime and apathy were the norm. They didn't know what to expect from DSA.

But Leavell says he quickly knew this school would be different: Teachers were "really up close," he says, even giving out cell phone numbers for after-school help: "But not just for homework-you could call them for anything you needed to talk about."

Leavell had plenty to talk about. Living in a tiny house with his mother, grandmother, sister, and three brothers (including a twin), life in the 9th Ward was full of "crime, poverty, drugs, murder, violence," he says. "I always felt like, 'I'm going to get away from this.'"

Finishing high school loomed large in Leavell's plans to get away, and by 2005 some 195 students were enrolled in DSA. But at the beginning of Leavell's junior year, high school took him and his classmates farther away than he expected.

When Leavell and his twin brother evacuated New Orleans in August 2005 with a DSA teacher and his wife, they thought they would quickly return. In the living room of the teacher's extended family in Monroe, La., Leavell watched in disbelief as Hurricane Katrina and a broken levee deluged his neighborhood with a wall of water.

All Leavell could think of was his mother, who had been stranded at work during the storm. "We thought we lost our mom," he says. "It's only by the grace of God that we didn't." Leavell's mother safely made it to Baton Rouge, where she eventually settled in a FEMA trailer. The rest of Leavell's family ended up scattered through Texas, Arkansas, and California.

The rest of DSM's staff and students were scattered across the country as well. (Many students and their families had evacuated with the help of ministry staff.) Within a week, Leverett and school officials were clamoring for a way to keep the academy open, even as the ministry's 36,000-square-foot campus sat soaking under water in the 9th Ward.

Less than a month later, the staff transformed a beachside 4-H camp in Niceville, Fla., into a temporary boarding school and arranged pickup points across the South to transport DSA students to the Florida panhandle. Leavell joined more than 80 students, and nearly the entire staff of DSA teachers, at the rustic boarding school in Niceville.

A year later, the school permanently relocated to Baton Rouge, where the ministry purchased a 24-acre tract of property with vacant church and school buildings. The academy serves 65 boarding students displaced by Katrina, and 30 more from the Baton Rouge area. With large sections of the 9th Ward still ruined and uninhabited, principal Al Jones says, "We're a Baton Rouge school now."

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