Published Online: August 31, 2005

Education Plans Unfold in Wake of Katrina Devastation

Even as schools across eastern Louisiana are closed today—some of them indefinitely—local and state officials are laying plans to assure that students have classrooms to go to as soon as possible.

Districts throughout the state that remain open are telling families who have evacuated to their areas to register children in local schools while the regions hit hardest by the storm work to reopen their schools.

Meanwhile, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has assigned members of her staff to marshal the state’s resources to help continue education for students in temporary shelters and in districts taking on a wave of long-term evacuees from the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina.

“The children in our state are too important, and we’re not going to let anything prevent us from moving forward,” said Jeanne M. Burns, an associate state commissioner for teacher education.

Locally, districts as far away as Shreveport—350 miles northwest of New Orleans—have started enrolling children who evacuated the New Orleans area, according to local officials and newspaper reports. The Lafayette Parish School System started enrolling children of evacuees today. The 30,000-student district about 130 miles east of New Orleans plans to have all new enrollees placed in schools by next week, said Justine W. Sutley, a spokeswoman for the district.

Schools in New Orleans and the surrounding area are likely to be closed for several months. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said today on “Good Morning America” that it would take between 12 and 16 weeks to pump floodwater out of the city. The school year for the 70,000-student New Orleans district—which has 128 schools—began Aug 18. About 80 percent of New Orleans is flooded, some of it with water as deep as 20 feet, according to news reports. The rural parishes of Placquemines and St. Bernard, which of are east of New Orleans, also are under water.

“Until the water goes away, you can’t even think about” opening schools there, said Carol A. Davis, the president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, a 20,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. “That’s why the surrounding parishes are saying, ‘Register your children.’ ”

As floodwaters Tuesday breached the levees, which until now protected the Crescent City, Gov. Blanco assigned Ms. Burns and Veronica Howard, the governor’s education adviser, to work with officials at the state education department on developing a plan to get children back to class as soon as possible.

Already, Ms. Burns said she has e-mailed the deans of area universities, asking them to look into using their teachers-in-training to provide instruction. She’s also considering the use of college students as tutors. Still, she added, help from outside the state will be needed.

“We are going to appreciate any help that we can receive from anyone across the country as we look at ways for the education to continue,” she said.

Texas Opens Doors

Elsewhere in the storm-ravaged region, schools were closed throughout southern Mississippi, which bore the brunt of the storm but hasn’t suffered flooding of the magnitude of eastern Louisiana. Gov. Haley Barbour said on CNN that emergency workers had cleared the roads to reach the Gulf Coast region to survey the damage and address the needs of people there.

In Alabama, which was on the eastern edge of Katrina’s path, two of the biggest school districts were closed Tuesday. Both Baldwin County and Mobile County schools were shuttered and without power.

Alvin Dailey, the principal of Leflore High School in Mobile, was at work issuing employee checks when he was contacted by telephone Wednesday, and said his school had no power but little damage from the storm. He said he expected students to return to school in a few days. “We’ll have the building cleaned up and be ready to focus on education,” he said.

Texas is already preparing to enroll possibly thousands of residents from New Orleans into Houston- area schools. Louisiana residents who rode out the storm in the Superdome are being moved to the Houston Astrodome while crews work on the city.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, the director of communications for the Texas Education Agency, said a letter has been sent to Texas superintendents telling them that the Louisiana children are going to be welcomed “with open arms.” District superintendents will be allowed to purchase extra textbooks, and may receive additional state money if they see more than 50 new students because of the storm. Also, a state requirement to keep elementary classes at a 22 to 1 student-teacher ratio has been waived.

Ms. Ratcliffe said she had no idea how long Louisiana children might be staying in the state. “I think everyone is thinking weeks, and possibly months,” she said. “I would not be surprised if some of the people who flee Katrina become permanent residents of Texas.”

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