Education's Toughest Challenge
It's difficult to even begin to put the disaster of Hurricane Katrina into perspective, much less make some sense of its enormous impact on the education of those displaced by the storm.
But writing this letter less than two weeks after the hurricane hit on Aug. 29, the effort being made to continue the education of these children seems nothing less than heroic. School districts from Maine to Washington are opening their doors to those displaced. Indeed, a mere two days after the storm hit, Louisiana school districts in Lafayette and Shreveport started to enroll evacuees.
Anybody who has been around education for any period of time has heard numerous jokes about how the structure of school is impervious to change. Yes, too often classrooms of today still look like the classrooms we attended, but that only makes the stark contrast of what's happening now even more impressive.
Far from reacting like dinosaurs resistant to change, state and local officials have waived paperwork requirements, re-opened schools that had been closed, and looked for classroom space wherever it could be found. Districts are considering double shifts in schools serving large numbers of displaced students and there is talk of setting up temporary schools right outside the Houston Astrodome, where large numbers of evacuees are staying. Schools are looking to teach children first, and ask questions later.
"In terms of school systems absorbing kids whose lives and homes have been shattered, what we're going to watch over the next few weeks is unprecedented in American education," Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan told The New York Times.
But like most other issues surrounding K-12 education these days, the question of No Child Left Behind is starting to dominate the conversation. National Education Association President Reg Weaver has already sent a letter to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings asking her to waive provisions of NCLB in schools taking large numbers of evacuees. There is certainly the possibility that the influx of students could tip a school in compliance with the law into a school that lands on the so-called failing list.
On Sept. 7, Spellings announced that the DOE "will consider promptly requests for waivers." "We are working to assess and respond flexibly to the needs of the most directly affected states, especially Louisiana and Mississippi, as well as Texas and other states that have received large numbers of displaced students," Spellings wrote on the DOE Web site. "Given the differences in the nature and extent of the damage and circumstances among states, we believe an individualized, case-by-case approach is the most effective means for meeting the needs at this time."
In light of the spirit of cooperation that has swept through the country following this natural disaster, here's one hope that in the months and years it takes to clean up from the storm and get the Gulf Coast "back to normal," that the politics and regulations remain secondary to the well-being and education of children.