Education Chat

Katrina's Aftermath: The Struggles Ahead

Education Week Staff Writer Alan Richard and Director of Photography Sarah Evans recently visited areas along Mississippi's Gulf Coast to chronicle how those communities are struggling to keep their schools running.

Katrina’s Aftermath: The Struggles Ahead
March 2, 2006

Our Guests:

    Sarah Evans, director of photography, Education Week; and
    Alan Richard, staff writer, Education Week.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat about the status of schools on the Gulf Coast in Mississippi. Education Week Staff Writer Alan Richard and director of photography Sarah Evans traveled to schools on the Gulf Coast in January to chronicle how they were doing almost six months after Hurricane Katrina. Let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Susan Goebertus, Adjunct Jacksonville University:
In regard to NCLB, what kinds of accommodations are (hopefully) being made for these schools and their students so incredibly affected by Hurricane Katrina?

Alan Richard:
My understanding is that the U.S. Department of Education is allowing states some additional flexibility on NCLB for storm-affected school districts. The Mississippi legislature, in a special session after Hurricane Katrina, approved a measure allowing the state education board to approve some waivers for storm-hit school districts on NCLB-related matters such as timelines for giving students tests and accountability rules, along with more practical issues such as days missed. For more details, contact each state education department in the Gulf Coast region. When I asked individual school district leaders about NCLB, they seemed still to not have a precise idea about whether state accountability rules--that can take action against very low-rated schools--might be suspended for this year and in districts serving large numbers of displaced students from the coast.

Question from Karli Wheeler, Teacher, Columbus Elementary, NY:
My students were just asking me yesterday: How could we help students at a school in Mississippi? We think they might still be having some trouble adapting to life after Katrina. 1)Can you tell me what I can share with my kids about these students, and 2)the most helpful and direct way to support them?

Many thanks...

Alan 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. School supplies have been donated from across the country already. Each state and the federal government have Web sites with instructions on ways to help, and so do 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 with people in New York!

Comment from Elisabeth Nance, Social Studies Licensure Major, University of Southern Mississippi:
This is not a question but just a comment. As a resident of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I believe it is important that educators understand the issues surrounding the schools in the area as well as the students whose lives have been turned upside down. I look forward to this discussion.

Question from Sylvia Jones, VP of HR, Alternatives Unlimited:
Concerning St. Bernard Parish: This school district is now trying to operate one unified (k-12) school district to meet the needs of their returning children. To date, no assistance has been given to assist these teachers, who are working at 1/3 their regular pay and living in small trailers -- while trying to rebuild their own destroyed homes. These teachers are working without textbooks, extremely limited supplies, and in moldy conditions. When is someone or some organization going to step forward and help? These students deserve a quality education, and they will not receive one without educational supplies. Why are we cheating these students?

Alan Richard:
Thanks for your comment, Ms. Jones. Maybe there are some folks out there who can help. We will certainly look into what’s going on in St. Bernard Parish.

Comment from Verna Battle, Teacher, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr. elementary school:
The children from the poor districts don’t have people advocating on their behalf.This country has a responsibility to educator all child!

Question from Dr. Gerrie Hawkins, Senior Program Analyst, National Council on Disability:
Three questions: (1) How have mental health needs of children impacted by the hurricane been addressed? This question is with respect to children with or without any previous diagnostic labels. (2) How has the provision of special education and related services been challenged during this period? (3) How might the federal government diminish some of the challenges for all children (with or without and identified disability) at this point? Thank you for your consideration of these question.

Alan Richard:
Although many schools and states have sent teams of counselors into Gulf Coast schools to work with youngsters and adults following the storm, I heard a lot about how the stress continues even now. There may not be enough school counselors and mental health professionals in the region on a normal day, and certainly there appear to be many needs now. It’s also hard to find large numbers of well-qualified special ed teachers anyway, so I would imagine some schools and districts are having a hard time finding folks to provide these services. It’s not something I delved into in detail, however. I will share your questions with our reporter who covers special education.

Question from Jean Douglas, Ed.D., Teacher Educator, CCV Vermont:
Are they 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?

Alan Richard:
Again, it’s hard to find large numbers of well-qualified teachers in science, math, foreign language and special education on a normal day, 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-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 from Deneen O’Connor, Board Member, Jefferson Dollars For Scholars:
I live in the Greater New Orleans area. Our students are experiencing financial problems as their families have lost everything. Due to the lack of funding in this area and along the Gulf Coast, can you suggest funding sources that we can seek so that we can assist these students with scholarships to attend college in the fall?

Alan Richard:
I wish I had better news for you. Maybe other readers can chime in on this topic. Finding ways to help Gulf Coast students make their ways to college deserves a lot more attention.

Question from Mary LeBlanc, Director, New Heights Parenting Center, U. S. Dept. of Ed. Parent Information and Resource Center:
Our aency is a federal program that serves all the families of the state of Louisiana - there are over 80 P.I.R.C.s in the nation - what do you see as the biggest needs for children and families effected by Hurricane Katrina, especially educational needs?

Sarah Evans:
I spent the most time at the central offices of Waveland-Bay St. Louis, MS. My suggestion would be to contact a superintendent of a particular district before sending any donations. Each district has different needs depending on the population of kids who have returned and the state of school buildings.

The donation needs change quickly depending on the last shipment received. Even after just a month, my information is out-of-date as to what classrooms need.

Question from Jerry West, Technology Specialist, Dallas ISD:
Whatever happened to the permanent records such as transcripts and immunization records in the flooded areas? How can another education organization or an employer get a true picture of an applicant’s scholastic aptitude? What are the plans to prevent this type of problem to from happening again in the future?

Alan Richard:
In Mississippi, many student records were kept in the state capital of Jackson on backup computer systems. But many personnel records for schools 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 from Catheen Connelly, Math Teacher, Algonquin Regional High School:
Does anyone know of any summer opportunities to volunteer as a math tutor to help the Katrina victims? Is this even needed at this time?

Alan Richard:
I would imagine there’s a terrific need for summer tutors. What a great way for a student 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 from Kathy Gonzales, Supervisor of Support Services:
Our parish, St. Bernard, lost all sales and property tax. The entire parish was flooded, and every school and business was impacted. How are school districts supposed to continue operating? The minimum foundation funding from the state which follows students is not adequate to operate an entire school system. We are operating off of a federal loan. How are other districts surviving?

Alan Richard:
Since public schools depend on state and local property tax proceeds to operate, the situation continues to be dire. Before federal aid arrived, many school districts considered shutting down. School officials say more federal and state aid will be needed to make up for lost local property taxes, since there are far fewer businesses and homes to tax. The superintendent in Pass Christian, Miss., told us that she plans to lay off a considerable number of teachers and other staff members at the end of the school year, for instance. I don’t envy the people who must face these problems up close. Everyone affected should keep us posted, so we can keep the nation informed.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:

Please describe the conditions of the schools you saw during your trip there in January. What conditions startled you?

Sarah Evans:
The districts have done an amazing job of creating school space for children. Temporary trailers are everywhere. I was impressed that the Pass Christain 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 regs on the flood plain areas. But the districts are cleaning up rubble, meeting with architects, etc.

In the neighborhoods,though, some blocks don’t look any different than our first trip just 10 days after the storm. School kids see that destruction on their way to school.

Question from Bre Urness-Straight, Instructor, Anacortes High School:
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/experiences?

Sarah Evans:
One teacher in particular, Jean Foster, uses various art projects to help the students express their emotions about the hurricane and life afterwards. She called it the Comfort Quilt.

Students use contrasting and complimentary colors of paper to create designs to help them visually describe their feelings. Many kids 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 from Robert Boyd, Ex Dir, DonorsChoose for Tx, La, Miss & Al:
We don’t hera much about southwestern Louisiana (Lake Charles area) or southeast Texas (Beaumont Port Arthur area), how are they recovering? How about the Alabama Coast?

Alan Richard:
I haven’t visited Texas or Alabama since the storms, but we can’t forget that Hurricane Rita--which followed Katrina--wuld have been one of the nation’s worst natural disasters on its own. We should look into the situation with schools and families in those areas, where entire towns saw major floods and wind damage.

Question from Lemuel Patterson, Science Specialist, Richland One School District, Columbia, SC:
During the aftermath of the Earthquake in Kobe, Japan, Japanese students told of their heroic deeds, disasterous encounters, and eye-witness accounts of the event. Considering the endorsement of counselors and therapists, will survivor students of Hurricane Katrina have an opportunity to tell their stories to other students interested in the science of Hurricanes?

Alan Richard:
I remember meeting you, Mr. Patterson, when you taught in Denmark, South Carolina. Hope all is well! You ask a fascinating question, one that could be useful in science classes everywhere. I’m not aware of such activity, but it sounds like a terrific idea.

Question from Robert Boyd, Ex Dir, DonorsChoose for Tx, La, Miss & Al:
Would it be accurate to characterize all schools that are south of Baton Rouge from Beaumont to Mobile as Hurricane Impacted by either Katrina and/or Rita? In other words, is it safe to say that not a single school district in that 4 state area from Mobile to Beaumont and south of Baton Rouge escaped some form of impact from those storms whether by accepting evacuees, to the reduction of their tax base, to the physical damage to school facilities, to the loss of key personnel?

Alan Richard:
Absolutely. I have seen the damage personally for a 70- or 80-mile stretch from New Orleans to Pascagoula, Miss., and in most areas, just about every neighborhood was flooded, wrecked, or saw homes with heavy roof damage, trees down, etc. The schools were hit hard, too. Check out Sarah’s amazing photo gallery on the Education Week web site to see some of the damage for yourself. And school districts far inland were hit hard, too: the Jackson, Miss., schools took in about 900 new students right after the storm. School districts and homes 150 miles inland were without power for two weeks in some areas.

Question from Sarah Minnick, Social Studies teacher, AHCS:
Many schools across the country have organized drives to raise money for Katrina victims. When students hear that there is still a significant amount of work that needs to be accomplished in the Gulf Coast, what more can they do? Where have all the billions of dollars gone that has already been raised? If you can prioritize their need, what is needed the most by the people affected by Katrina?

Thank you.

Alan Richard:
I’m not sure where all the money has gone, but I witnessed Red Cross trucks delivering meals to penniless families living in tents and trailers, and all sorts of other relief activity. If I lived there, I know I would appreciate a team of helpers to work on my home and community cleanup. Local schools and national relief organizations can point you toward specific ways in which you can help. I wish I could say more, but I think the needs vary by community and neighborhood.

Question from Caroline Thibodeau, Coordinator of Health Services, Homeless Liasion Manteca Unified School District:
Our district has adopted Pass Christian School District. I am just interested in whatever you can tell me about the community and district. We have been in contact with the district. I am also interested in pictures of the community and school district. I have received some from PC but I am doing power point presentations to generate interest and updated pictures are useful. Thank you,

Caroline Thibodeau

Sarah Evans:
Pass Christian is like the little engine that could. They have relocated their town center about two blocks east to their town park. This new ‘downtown’ is a collection of trailers - the bank, favorite town restaurant, all in trailers.

Beth John, the curriculum coordinator for the district, said about seven businesses had come back. The number went up to eight as we were driving through town - she saw another business open.

The infrastructure is slowly coming back. Some other towns lucked out in that their downtowns were set back from the water. Not so in PC. Yet great enthusiasm to rebuild.

Question from Mark Carter, Geography Teacher, North Clayton High School:
Sometimes tragic events present new opportunities. Since you are basically rebuilding a new school district, are you using the unique opportunity to implement needed changes (management, funding, programs) or will it be business as usual with the same dismal results (low test scores, poor quality teachers)?

Alan Richard:
The rebuilding of schools will allow for an opportunity to experiment with new forms of school construction in flood-prone areas. I heard talk of school districts considering new schools on tall pillars that might avoid floodwaters. I would hope the situation will allow for a rebirth of educational opportunities for young people in the New Orleans area. The affected Mississippi schools generally did well while serving sizeably poor populations of students, but I hope a shortage of money and people will not result in a slip of the quality of education that state provides. If anything, there’s so much more work to do, regardless of the storm.

Question from Lynda Rill, English Teacher, Baldwinsville, NY:
How can we get the media to “kick it up a notch” with high visibility for this problem? We’re seeing images of Mardi Gras revelers, which I KNOW is not the real story. How can we help get the focus back on the kids and the continuing poor educational circumstances? They need a “We are the World, We Are the Children” moment/movement.

Alan Richard:
It’s not a reporter’s place to say what we need to do. But my hunch is that we need a tremendous level of national and local leadership to emerge--not just from politicians, but from business leaders, charities, community activists, and so forth. The whole Gulf Region looks like it has been through a war. I have been plesed to see some of the national media explore important stories this week in Louisiana and Mississippi away from Bourbon Street.

Question from Toni Gross, Speech & Language Pathologist, Alameda Elementary:
What are some practical things that educators in other states might do to assist their colleagues (and especially students) in Louisiana affected by Katrina?

Sarah Evans:
Many teachers and administrators lost everything so don’t have any comforts of home - but the trailers are so small they can’t fit new comforts inside.

Personally, I think once houses start to be rebuilt - a practical thing might be to organize a welcome wagon of sorts for educators in a district. Send a box full of everyday home things that we take for granted. Basic Target stuff.

Lines are long in stores. Not having to make one trip for paper towel after moving in to a new house might make one teacher very happy. The small things are so difficult to accomplish with the damaged retail infrastructure. One trip takes four hours when before Katrina it took 20 minutes.

Question from Ava Sweet, Coordinator of Mentor Programs, Professional Development Services, Houston Independent School District:
In the Houston Independent School District, we have enrolled more than 5300 Katrina student evacuees and hired more than 250 teacher evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi. HISD Professional Development Services provides ongoing support to both teachers and students who continue to feel the devastation of Katrina through learning communities, school- and district-based projects, fund-raising, social activities, and more. There is still much we’d like to do. Please share ongoing activities and efforts in school districts to acclimate Katrina students and teacher evacuees to their “still new” surroundings, as well as efforts among native state residents to instill acceptance and provide ongoing assistance to the new residences.

Alan Richard:
We should do more reporting on how schools are helping displaced students and families throughout the nation. Education Week writer Debbie Viadero recently explored the stories of several families who settled in Virginia after the storm. Here’s a link to her story:

Question from Jean Grice, Education Coordinator:
1. How can I help beyond financial support? 2. What is the status of the closed schools, i.e., plan of action and milestones, students and teachers? 3. What is the primary ‘lesson learned’ regarding emergency action plans?

Alan Richard:
School leaders in the region have begun meeting with architects and planners to think about rebuilding some schools. Others may be forced to close because of money or lack of students, although rural school and community school activists would warn against doing such damage to small communities that can offer nurturing settings for students. In terms of emergency plans, I think it was amazing that schools that were completely destroyed in the hurricane or its floods reopened throughout Mississippi within about eight weeks of the storm. While portables and boardwalks between classes may not be ideal, school is back in session.

Question from Mr. Stan Hart, instructor, University of Alabama at Birmingham:
I have visited the Mississippi gulf coast and many businesses and homes are unoccupied. At this point where are they in regards to the income stream from tax revenue for their schools?

Alan Richard:
Local tax revenue will be a major problem for some time. Mississippi passed special legislation to allow casinos in the Blioxi and Gulfport areas to reopen a little ways inland, to allow for quicker rebuilding. Previously, casinos--which employ many thousands along the coast at their hotels, restaurants and shows, had to be built on barges that actually floated on the Gulf of Mexico or inlets along the coast.

Question from Kevin Bushweller:

In traveling around taking photographs, what was your sense of the general morale of students and teachers?

Sarah Evans:
Morale was very upbeat. I was impressed with the silver-lining ability of teachers who live in tiny trailers, work in portables and shop in stores set up temporary locations. Nothing is solid.

One teacher, new to a school, said she has bonded stronger and faster to other co-workers. Others make community where they find it - like the numerous teachers who live together in FEMA trailers in pods.

There is a collective strength that I think really helps the students. All the district folks want a normal school day for their kids. They understand the value of that consistency at a time when lives are so unsure.

Question from Judith L Hirschhorn, Director of Secondary Special Services, Byram Hills School District:
How did the hurricane impact on educational services for students with disabilities? Are you aware of any organizations that are raising funds for this population of students?

Alan Richard:
I wish I knew more about this. It’s an important issue, and someone raised it earlier. We should look into this. Please contact us and help us learn more.

Question from Robert Boyd, Ex Dir, DonorsChoose for Tx, La, Miss & Al:
We know that the DOE reimbursement rates to school districts that absorbed evacuees will be lower than the per student cost, but has anyone done a financial analysis to determine the negative financial impact of Katrina and Rita on the school districts that absorbed students?

Alan Richard:
Congress has approved a huge aid package that provides extra money for school districts--and even private schools--serving displaced students after the storm. (Check our archives of stories for much more information.) I’m sure there are other issues that districts serving displaced students are facing. The most storm-damaged areas certainly are struggling financially and likely will be the focus of more federal and state aid. Without it, classes are growing larger, some schools will not be rebuilt, and staff layoffs will ensue. I’m not arguing for a specific amount or form of aid--a journalist must stay out of such things--but we will be watching closely to see what actions elected officials take. The point is, the financial situation in these areas is awful for families and for local governments, including school districts.

Question from Charlotte Ratcliff, Distinguished Educator, Louisiana Department of Education:
What are the living conditions of the students who have returned? As an educator who works with children who have experienced this terrible storm, home living conditions will play a big part in the children’s ability to focus. Hopefully, teachers are aware and are handling the children with kindness and compassion.

Sarah Evans:
Many teachers and administrators are living in the same conditions as their students. There is a general feeling of ‘we are all in this together.’ I was really impressed with how teachers are incorporating students’ needs into class time - i.e. art projects to help emote about the storm.

The districts are helping to relieve stresses by relaxing rules like no cell phones in the classroom - so teachers can respond to personal issues like FEMA, insurance or school issues like donation calls.

A good balance between ‘a horrible thing happened’ and ‘lets make the day as normal as we can’.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):

Thank you for joining us for this informative chat about how Mississippi schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina are doing six months later. And a special thanks to our guests for addressing your questions.

This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on