Louisiana's Districts Pick Up After Storm

New Orleans schools escape major damage.

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As hundreds of thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Gustav returned to their homes on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast late last week, educators in the southern half of the state were preparing to reopen most schools this week after students missed up to six days of instruction.

For most districts, the biggest obstacle to having schools up and running this week was going to be the restoration of power, said Paul G. Pastorek, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education. Getting evacuated teachers back home and accessing enough fuel to operate fleets of school buses also will be challenges, he said.

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For more stories about schools in New Orleans, check out our collection New Orleans Schools: Recovery and Reform.

But in south-central Louisiana, where on Sept. 1 the storm made its most direct hit and caused the most damage, opening schools again is slated to take much longer.

In Assumption Parish, about 65 miles west of New Orleans, Superintendent Earl Martinez said power might not be restored for six weeks, a time frame that could keep schools shuttered until mid-October. Several schools in the 4,000-student district suffered major roof damage, he said, and rain-soaked flooring in many of them will need to be replaced.

“We’ve got buildings where you go in and can look up and see the sky,” said Mr. Martinez. “I can’t put kids in those schools until there are roofs and power.” Sending children to neighboring parishes for instruction is also going to be difficult, he said, because those districts are also without power and must repair storm-damaged buildings.

Mr. Martinez said he would rent a generator for the school district’s central office, “so that we can keep those [administrative] operations going.”

Hard-Hit Communities

In Terrebonne Parish, with more than 30 public schools in the hard-hit communities of Houma and Dulac, school leaders also could not project late last week when they might reopen, but were calling for school staff members to return as soon as possible to help assess damage and start working on repairs.

“Some schools were significantly damaged in that area because they are in the parishes that took the brunt of the storm,” Mr. Pastorek said. “And the restoration of power is really the controlling factor.”

In most districts, though, including New Orleans and Baton Rouge, school leaders were aiming for a Sept. 8 resumption of classes—a date that would be pushed back if power had not been restored.

Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, said last week that most of the city’s schools—including 10 campuses made up of modular buildings—suffered only minor damage. Mr. Vallas, who remained in the city during Hurricane Gustav, said the storm had done some minor roof damage to buildings and blown out windows at one school. He said there had been no vandalism or theft.

“We dodged a bullet on this one,” Mr. Vallas said last week.

That New Orleans’ rebuilt levees withstood the storm, and that no widespread flooding occurred, brought relief to a city and public education system still recovering from the ruin and massive displacement of residents caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, nearly three years to the day of Gustav’s arrival. Last school year, roughly 33,000 students were enrolled in the city’s traditional public schools and charter schools—only about half the pre-Katrina public school enrollment in New Orleans.

Still, evacuated school leaders last week were anxious to see for themselves how well their schools had endured the latest storm.

Doris R. Hicks, the principal of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, was especially nervous. King, now a pre-K-9 school, was inundated by 14 feet of water following Katrina and has since been completely rebuilt.

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See other stories on education issues in Louisiana. See data on Louisiana's public school system.

This time, King and the still-fragile Lower Ninth Ward were spared.

Ms. Hicks said she and her staff members had more time to prepare for Gustav than they did before Katrina.

“We moved all of our electronic equipment up to the second floor, and we took photos of everything in the school for insurance purposes,” said Ms. Hicks. “We even had time to send a letter home to parents about being prepared to leave the city, and we made homework packets for the children to take with them.”

Mr. Pastorek, the state superintendent, said many districts had planned ahead for the possible destruction that Gustav might bring.

St. Bernard Parish, to the east of New Orleans, was one of the most devastated communities after Katrina. This time, school district leaders took care to relocate their entire bus fleet to higher ground some 60 miles north of New Orleans, Mr. Pastorek said.

He also said districts all over the state were encouraged to photograph their buildings and other assets.

“After Katrina, we had a hell of a time getting a clear picture on what assets were damaged and what insurance policies and [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] should be responsible for,” he said. “Obviously, this storm didn’t wreak nearly the havoc of Katrina, but we all learned valuable lessons from that storm and put them to good use in preparing for this one.”

Still, there is hard work ahead for educators to refocus students on learning after the disruption.

“Even if the building is fine, there will still be a lot we have to do to rev back up in time to reopen,” such as getting fresh food delivered, said Roslyn Johnson Smith, the president of the Treme Charter School Association, which operates the McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School in New Orleans.

“We will have our work cut out to get the children ready for instruction again,” she said. “This is not easy for them.”

Vol. 28, Issue 03, Pages 8-9

Published in Print: September 10, 2008, as Louisiana's Districts Pick Up After Storm
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