As Hurricane Rita roared over the Gulf of Mexico coast in late September and left displaced children and families of Hurricane Katrina to find yet another temporary home out of harm's way, Katrina's wrath was still reverberating.
Many school children initially displaced by Katrina and living temporarily in Texas had to move yet again when Rita was about to set in, either to other shelters in central or northern Texas, or with family and friends. Houston schools did not reopen immediately as people were asked to come back in shifts to avoid massive traffic jams.
Following Katrina, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings dedicated to pay 90 percent of educational costs of students and schools affected by the hurricane. She proposed $2.6 billion for elementary, secondary and post-secondary relief, or $7,500 per K-12 student affected, over one year. Most money will go toward K-12 public schooling. But some is going into private schools as 61,000 students of more than 187,000 in four severely affected Louisiana parishes were enrolled in private schools before they were forced out and into crowded or portable classrooms in other parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia and across the nation.
The issue of public funds supporting private school caused an uproar from U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and even the National Education Association. "It is unfortunate that the administration has chosen to open the divisive, social policy debate around vouchers and advance a privatization agenda at a time when the nation's education system is facing unprecedented challenges," states NEA President Reg Weaver.
The Department of Education and districts considered how to compensate for missed school days. But Spellings announced that the department will allow a one-year reprieve on academic accountability standards under No Child Left Behind, allowing the schools affected by Katrina and Rita to avoid penalty for poor annual assessments. But schools must show they did not meet state standards due to the disaster.
School administrators also reported that much of the education information technology infrastructure weathered the storms.
Spellings also convened in October a group of mental health experts for the first of six roundtable series to learn more about the hurricane's impact on displaced children. A new booklet for school officials and parents, "Tips for Helping Students Recovering from Traumatic Events," is available at www.hurricanehelpforschools.gov/index.html.
Teachers, many of whom applied for unemployment, are also encouraged to take other teaching jobs in schools taking in displaced students. Many headed for new homes in Florida and other nearby states.
The hurricanes also brought about the need to revisit Title VII-b of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, designed to ensure that homelessness does not cause these children to be left in segregated "schools" such as those set up in shelters, U.S. Air Force bases, or other places separate from the neighborhood district. Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, says she believes there was "another pressure" from charter and for-profit schools to put classrooms in shelters, such as in Texas and Utah. "Not that they are bad people but they are looking at it as opportunistic," she says.
Louisiana was awarded nearly a $21 million NCLB grant through the Charter Schools Program to help reopen charter schools damaged by the hurricanes, help create 10 new charter schools and expand existing charter schools to accommodate displaced students.
Displaced Students Are Taken In
They are in Houston and northern Louisiana. They are in Arizona, neighboring Mississippi and the southern states. And they are in New York, Maine, and Oregon.
Houston Independent School District alone took on 23,000 displaced students. Family or friends have taken many displaced residents in, or they have been put in shelters, on closed military bases, and/or given temporary homes.
Louisiana had 489 schools closed after Katrina and three districts will be closed until January or the end of the school year. All other schools were to reopen in early October, as Rita did not disrupt those plans. Mississippi had 226 schools closed immediately after Katrina.
"We've developed a buddy system with every district in the state where we have a cabinet level staff person here at the state Department of Education and have one point of contact with us [at the school] and we get their [district leaders'] questions answered immediately," says Meg Casper, Louisiana's education department spokeswoman. "We're looking to take a snapshot of all districts taking in students and having them let us know their needs and not only meet those needs but with the amount of donations and assistance from across the country, match up those needs with the offers of assistance."
Texas alone took in about 45,100 displaced students, putting them in expanded classrooms, and hired about 200 teachers, 25 of whom are from Louisiana. Teachers were hired with a one-year, non-renewable teaching certificate, authorized by the State Board for Educator Certification.
Some students may have since moved yet again as they found apartments or other homes in other states, according to Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for Texas Education Agency.
Louisiana and Texas officials are also working out details to allow seniors from Louisiana to take the Louisiana assessment test and graduate with a Louisiana diploma, instead of having to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test to graduate.
Jackson, Miss., which had schools closed until about mid-September, took in about 860 displaced students. Superintendent Earl Watkins says the district is working hard to get additional teachers and put students in portable classrooms, some of which were already in place due to increased enrollment before the storm. By this month, Watkins says, it's very possible students and parents could be returning to their original states and communities. "We are planning for them to stay," however, Watkins says. "Right now, our students need solutions."
As youngsters get tossed from school to school and state to state following two major hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast recently, psychologists and counselors say administrators and teachers must create a safe haven for such fragile souls.
As many youngsters can suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression, after watching family members and friends die in front of them, after not returning home, and after setting up shelter in likely numerous locations and heading to strange schools with strange classmates, they must feel welcome in their new location.
"First and foremost, teachers and schools can make them feel welcome and make them feel school is ready to receive them and they are happy to have the kids there," says Dan Domenech, senior vice president of urban markets for McGraw-Hill Education.
Teachers can also assign student "buddies" to match the personalities of new students, showing them around school and answering questions. "That's being done effectively around the country," Domenech says.
Also, students must have the basics--desk, books, and supplies--to have any chance at success. Schools are also hiring more guidance counselors to help deal with emotionally wrought children or seek out those students, picking up on a child's body language or behavior for those who may not come forward and reveal their angst or anxiety.
Angela Pascopella is features editor.