On March 2, readers questioned two of Education Week’s staff members who had recently toured hurricane-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast: Sarah Evans, the director of photography, and Alan Richard, a staff writer who covers many Southern states and has done extensive reporting about last fall’s storms and their effects on schooling. Below are excerpts from the discussion.
A full transcript of this chat is available at www.edweek.org/katrina/
Question: My students were just asking me yesterday: How can we help students at a school in Mississippi? What can I tell them about these students and ways to help them?
Richard: Students along the Gulf Coast have seen their entire worlds change. Most of them still do not live in their former homes, six months after the storm; conveniences like child care and everyday shopping are not available to their families in some areas. Tens of thousands of students from Louisiana are enrolled in schools far away from home; dozens of schools in Mississippi have moved into trailer villages since their buildings were flooded or leveled.
I wish I knew the best way to help them. The states affected and the federal government all have Web sites with instructions on ways to help, and so do various charities and relief groups. I know that many youngsters and educators in the region would appreciate notes of encouragement and the chance to make new friends in other states.
Question: Please describe the condition of the schools you saw during your trip there in January. Did anything startle you?
Evans: The districts have done an amazing job of creating school space for children. Temporary trailers are everywhere. This was our second trip to Mississippi, and I was impressed that the Pass Christian Middle School site had been cleaned up.
What is surprising is the slow movement in the neighborhoods. New school construction is somewhat delayed by new rules and regulations on the flood-plain areas. But the districts are cleaning up rubble, meeting with architects, and so on. In the neighborhoods, though, some blocks don’t look any different from our first trip, just 10 days after the storm.
Question: Are school officials actively hiring teachers from outside the state, or do they have enough in-state applicants for available positions? Are they seeking teacher volunteers, or do they prefer to operate with only paid personnel?
Richard: It’s hard to find large numbers of well-qualified teachers in science, math, foreign languages, and special education under normal circumstances, especially in more-rural sections of the Deep South. But remember that not all the students have returned to the region, either, which may cut down on some shortages. Bus drivers are hard to find, though. I also know that volunteers are playing some important roles. For example, a group of retired teachers from Georgia was headed to Bay St. Louis and Waveland, Miss., to substitute for teachers who need to work on their homes and see about insurance or loved ones for a day or two.
Question: What has happened to permanent records, such as transcripts and immunization records, in the flooded areas?
Richard: In Mississippi, many student records were kept in the state capital of Jackson on backup computer systems. But many personnel records for school districts were not. States may need to look into ways to prevent the loss of important personnel and other records in the future. In Bay St. Louis, water-damaged and mildewed records had to be frozen and sorted by hand to look for documents worth keeping. This kind of thing was hard to imagine before the storm, I’m sure.
Question: Do you know of any summer opportunities to volunteer as a math tutor to help the Katrina victims? Is this even needed at this time?
Richard: I would imagine there’s a terrific need for summer tutors. What a great way for a student volunteer to spend a summer! You might touch base with local school districts in Mississippi and Louisiana, and with relief groups working in the area, such as Save the Children. Housing and lodging are in short supply, so school officials might have to help volunteers find places to stay.
Question: I’m interested in how the schools have rebuilt their sense of community. What steps have school leaders and teachers taken to acknowledge and work through these tragic events? How have students responded? Have there been any unexpected results or experiences?
Evans: One teacher in particular, Jean Foster, uses various art projects to help students express their emotions about the hurricane and life afterwards. She calls this the “Comfort Quilt.” Students use contrasting and complementary colors of paper to create designs to help them visually describe their feelings. Many used red for anger, or blue for the water. The kids title their work and include a statement about what they learned from the project. One little boy told me the water hit the town like a big beast pinching really hard. Interesting, how they describe emotions.
Question: In the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, several years ago, Japanese students recounted their heroic deeds, disastrous encounters, and eyewitness accounts of the event. Will Hurricane Katrina’s survivor-students have an opportunity to do the same?
Richard: You ask a fascinating question. Such stories could be useful in science classes everywhere. I’m not aware of such activity, but it sounds like a terrific idea.
Question: What are some practical things that educators in other states might do to assist their colleagues affected by Katrina?
Evans: Many teachers and administrators lost everything, so they don’t have any comforts of home. And the trailers are so small that they can’t fit any new comforts inside. Personally, I think that once houses start to be rebuilt, one practical thing to do might be to organize a “welcome wagon” of sorts for educators in a particular district. Send a box full of the everyday home things we take for granted: basic Target stuff. Lines are long in the stores. So not having to make one more trip for paper towels after moving into a new house might make a teacher very happy. The small things are so difficult to accomplish with the damaged retail infrastructure.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as chat wrap-up: Katrina’s Continuing Aftermath