Gulf Coast Schools Prepare to Reopen Amid Uncertainties
Katrina-hit districts await portables and wonder how many students will return.
With many Louisiana and Mississippi schools expected to open this week for the first time since Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast, school leaders were working hard last week to prepare despite uncertainty over how many students would actually show up.
“I don’t think we’ll really know until Monday,” Oct. 3, said Carrolyn R. Hamilton, the superintendent of Long Beach school district in Mississippi, which had an enrollment of 3,200 students before the storm. “You just have to be patient and find out.”
Many school systems in southeastern Louisiana and coastal Mississippi have been closed since Katrina approached in late August. At least eight districts were expected to reopen schools this week, though not all buildings would be usable. Some other districts have already reopened, but in some of the hardest-hit areas, such as New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish, no firm date has been set for reopening schools.
Besides uncertainty over enrollment, administrators were unsure last week how many of their employees would return. Some were worrying how they would make their payrolls in the long term, while others were awaiting portable classrooms already overdue.
In districts reopening this week, how many students to expect was one of the biggest question marks.
“We can all speculate, but I don’t think any of us do know,” said Jeff Nowakowski, a spokesman for the Jefferson Parish district near New Orleans, which had 46,000 students. Eighty out of 84 schools in the system—far more than originally anticipated—were scheduled to reopen Oct. 3.
For his part, Glen V. East, the superintendent of the Gulfport district in Mississippi, got a clue about enrollment last week, when his district’s high school reopened.
“We’re about 80 percent strong,” he said. “We were a high school of about 1,600, and now we’re a high school of about 1,250.”
Of those students, 42 were newcomers, he said. The K-8 programs were scheduled to resume this week. The district had 6,200 students before the storm.
Districts planning to reopen Oct. 3 were making final repairs last week to meet that target.
“We have contractors and cleaning crews” in the schools, said Henry Arledge, the superintendent of Mississippi’s Harrison County district, which had 13,000 students. “We think by the weekend we’ll be in pretty good shape.”
The district, like many others in Mississippi, was still awaiting portable classrooms promised by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Arledge said his district was to get 36 portables, and had thought they would have arrived already.
He said that a middle school will be running double sessions until the portables come.
The damage in the Harrison County system wasn’t just to buildings. Textbooks, furniture, and supplies took a hit, too. Mr. Arledge estimates that his district lost at least $220,000 worth of textbooks alone. He added that more than 280 district employees lost their homes.
Despite the upheaval, Mr. Arledge is seeing signs that life is slowly getting back to normal. Last week, two district high schools played football games for the first time since the storm. One team lost an away game, but in the home game, Harrison Central pulled out a 21-14 victory.
The St. Tammany Parish district in Louisiana, which had 37,000 students, also was aiming to open Oct. 3.
Linda E. Roan, a spokeswoman for the district, said most schools would be ready then, though as many as six might have to open later. A few schools will run split schedules.
Like officials in other systems, Ms. Roan said she didn’t know yet how many students to expect.
“We have asked principals to phone parents, to let them know if the students are coming back, so we have a bit of an idea so we can plan,” she said.
The number of teachers was also not fully clear.
“I don’t have firm numbers on employees either,” Ms. Roan said. “But I will tell you that we made every effort to contact our employees, and to have them contact us through as many venues as we could find.”
Superintendent Hamilton of Mississippi’s Long Beach schools said she expected most of her teachers to return. She knew of three, as of last week, who were not planning to come back.
Of the five schools in her system, one was completely destroyed, but the rest were slated to reopen this week. Two elementary schools were expected to run double shifts until 23 requested portables arrived.
Mr. East of the Gulfport system said he was expecting that some 20 to 25 teachers and aides would not return. “With the decrease in student body, we’re OK,” he said.
Mr. East’s worry, though, is the loss of faculty members with special expertise. Teachers of geometry and microbiology are among those on his prestorm staff of 460 teachers who are not returning, he said. But he’s not losing heart.
“We feel we will be as strong, if not stronger, than we were in the past,” the superintendent said of his district.
Making payroll is also on district leaders’ minds, though in most cases it seems that the short-term situation is covered.
Mr. Nowakowski said the Jefferson Parish district was using a $26 million reserve fund to make the Sept. 15 and 30 payrolls.
“What happens on Oct. 15?” he said. “We need money for salaries, and FEMA says they’re bricks-and-mortar people.”
He’s putting hope in a proposal state schools Superintendent Cecil J. Picard sent to Congress calling for $2.8 billion in emergency federal aid. ("La. Schools Chief Seeks $2.8 Billion in K-12 Aid," Web Extra, Sept. 8, 2005.)
“We know the situations they’re in, and we’re as concerned as they are,” said Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the state schools chief. “We’ve got to wait for the federal funding picture to become clearer, and once it does, the state can begin to act.”
Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish district, which aims to open several schools by Oct. 17, can pay employees through the end of October.
“Our board has committed to making September and October payroll,” said Carol A. Roberts, the director of secondary education and instructional technology for the district, which had 5,000 students before the storm. “After that, it just depends on, well, the federal government, for one thing.”
Vol. 25, Issue 06, Page 10