Schools Open Doors to Students Fleeing Gulf Coast Disaster

By David J. Hoff — September 02, 2005 7 min read
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Thousands of children displaced by one of the most destructive natural disasters ever to strike the United States will be back in school soon, sometimes as far as 500 miles away from home.

Whether their own schools are flooded in New Orleans or missing roofs in Biloxi, Miss., many students will find a spot in a classroom in the town where they’ve landed.

Some 48 hours after Hurricane Katrina left the Gulf Coast, districts in the same or neighboring states started enrolling the storm’s refugees, as school officials across the South responded to the massive emergency migration caused by the devastating storm.

The open-door policies were among many steps taken in an effort to bring some sense of normal life to students, parents, and educators after Katrina left hundreds of schools in Louisiana and Mississippi closed indefinitely.

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Map: Back to School

Louisiana officials estimate that 135,000 students from New Orleans and the surrounding area will need access to schools in their temporary locales, possibly for months.

Mississippi officials did not have an accurate estimate of how many students were displaced by the storm and how long they’ll be away from home. State officials were continuing to assess the damage from the hurricane’s 175-per-hour winds and 25-foot storm surge in southern Mississippi, said Caron Blanton, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Education.

The school districts serving Gulfport, Biloxi, and Pascagoula—the three Gulf Coast cities hit hardest by Katrina—enroll 20,000 students and remained closed through Sept. 2.

In Alabama, on the eastern edge of the storm’s path, the Mobile school system had buildings that incurred flooding and structural damage, but the district expected to resume classes the day after Labor Day. Just east of Mobile, schools in Baldwin County had planned to reopen Sept. 1, but canceled classes when fuel shortages in the area made it difficult for students and employees to get to school. (“Hurricane Adds to Concern Over Fuel Costs,” Sept. 7, 2005.)

In an Aug. 31 news briefing, Louisiana state schools Superintendent Cecil Picard said: “To the parents out there, living in someone else’s home or in one of the many shelters set up around the state, I implore you to get your children enrolled in the school district closest to you.”

“Take care of your children,” Mr. Picard said. “Give them the stability they need right now. They should be, and are, our number-one priority right now.”

Finding New Schools

Hurricane Katrina hit states along the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 29. The next day, floodwaters broke through levees protecting New Orleans and inundated the city with up to 20 feet of water.

Even before Mr. Picard made his televised plea to get children into school, districts in Louisiana and surrounding states were enrolling students displaced from the New Orleans area.

Update: February 15, 2006

Multimedia—The New Normal
Five months after the catastrophic storm, Education Week staff writer Alan Richard and Director of Photography Sarah Evans revisit the Mississipi Gulf region to report on the progress that has been made in the devastated school districts. Includes photo galleries with accompanying audio interviews.

The Lafayette and Shreveport districts—which are northwest of New Orleans and felt little of Katrina’s impact—started enrolling evacuees on Aug. 31. The Lafayette Parish system registered 636 students that day alone.

Most of the state’s schools started the 2005-06 school year in the middle of August.

The East Baton Rouge Parish system remained closed through Sept. 2 because more than 40 of its schools were without electricity, but it announced on its Web site that it would enroll evacuated children starting Sept. 6, the day after Labor Day.

The area’s Roman Catholic schools are also scrambling to enroll displaced students.

“Parents are frantic,” said Sister Mary Michaeline, the superintendent of schools for the 16,000-student Diocese of Baton Rouge. Although enrollment for the Baton Rouge Diocese has decreased by 300 students since last year, it doesn’t have enough room to accommodate all of the New Orleans-area residents who have fled to the state capital area, Sister Michaeline said. Almost 33,000 students attend Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Schools in the Baton Rouge Diocese were closed to students through Sept. 2, but administrative offices opened to accept applications. Once the diocese knows how many students need classroom spots, its leaders will consider opening temporary schools in commercial areas or expanding class sizes in their own schools. “That’s not ideal, but nothing’s ideal right now,” Sister Michaeline said.

Governors and state officials from Texas to Georgia and as far north as Virginia ordered their school districts to enroll any student temporarily displaced by Katrina.

School districts are typically waiving paperwork requirements—such as birth certificates, immunization records, and transcripts—so children can start attending schools right away. Because evacuees are considered homeless under federal law, they are eligible for free, federally funded school meals.

The Dallas Independent School District had officials searching for students in Reunion Arena—the home of the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team—which is being used as a temporary shelter. The district expected to enroll any students there, placing elementary students in a school near the arena. Middle and high school students will be bused to nearby schools, said Ivette Cruz Weis, a spokeswoman for the 160,000-student district. The district also set up a hotline for evacuees, and its administrators planned to have students in class starting Sept. 6, Ms. Weis said.

“We know they don’t have papers and transcripts and all of that,” she said. “We’ll just make an assessment and place them where they need to be.”

While school officials are willing to accept evacuees as students, they face many logistical problems, such as finding temporary classroom space and hiring teachers to handle the influx of students.

In Jackson, Miss., state officials were talking about the possibility of converting an abandoned K-Mart store into a temporary school, said Ms. Blanton of the state education department. But they don’t know if they will need to do that until the survey of the damage is completed.

Although schools throughout the region are willing to educate evacuees, some school officials are voicing concerns about the impact of the temporary student population on their local districts, said Susan Salter, the spokeswoman for the Alabama Association of School Boards.

Administrators are particularly concerned about meeting the health needs of students who had been stranded and may have been living in unsanitary conditions, she explained. “We would never turn anyone away, but we need to know how to help those children and what special needs they might have,” she said.

Looking for Work

While displaced children are finding seats in classrooms, displaced teachers are wondering how they can earn a paycheck while they wait to return home.

Teachers out of work because of the hurricane are eligible to receive unemployment benefits from their states and the federal government, said Connie Cordovilla, the American Federation of Teachers’ associate director for human rights and community relations.

But many teachers are saying they want to find temporary work in classrooms, said Ms. Cordovilla.

The unions in New Orleans and the neighboring Jefferson Parish are AFT affiliates, as is the Biloxi union in Mississippi. Ms. Cordovilla said AFT officials in Washington said they had been in contact with members from their Louisiana affiliates, but hadn’t heard from any members in Biloxi.

“I’ve had people telling me: ‘I’ll go out to Goodwill, buy a suit, and get a job,’ ” she said.

Districts will need permission to waive federal rules if they wish to hire new teachers or paraprofessionals, Ms. Cordovilla said.

If a Louisiana teacher takes a job in another state, for example, he or she is unlikely to meet that state’s definition of a highly qualified teacher under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, she said. Top federal education officials, meanwhile, said they would cut through red tape as necessary to waive requirements under the NCLB law in light of the disaster. (“Officials Vow Flexibility on Federal Rules,” Sept. 7, 2005.)

How Temporary?

Once they have helped displaced students find temporary schools, officials in Louisiana and Mississippi will set to work figuring how long schools will be closed.

Initial reports from Mississippi suggest many schools, along with casinos, hotels, and other structures, were leveled.

According to the Web site of television station WLOX in Biloxi, the walls of Harrison Central 9th Grade School in North Gulfport collapsed, the roof blew off St. Martin High School in Pascagoula, and, at the very least, the elementary schools in Harrison County saw significant damage to their roofs.

In New Orleans and five districts near it, schools remained flooded along with other buildings through Sept. 2.

Officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it would take a month simply to pump floodwaters out of the city.

Until then, school officials will not be able to provide an assessment of the structural damage done to their buildings.

Staff Writer Michelle R. Davis contributed to this report.


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