Thousands of Louisiana students who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina may not have enrolled in school anywhere, according to the state schools chief, and Louisiana is hard-pressed to keep track of students who have dispersed to almost every state in the country.
Superintendent of Education Cecil J. Picard, during a Oct. 13 discussion with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and other educators held in Baton Rouge, said that there was at least a 20,000-student discrepancy between the number of children the state believes were displaced by the hurricane that hit the New Orleans area Aug. 29 and the number of students the state knows enrolled in classes throughout Louisiana and in other states.
“I would say there could be 20,000 to 25,000 who have not been to school yet,” Mr. Picard told the group, as reported in the Baton Rouge Advocate.
Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education, said in an interview last week that the number was a “guesstimate.” Still, the state is concerned, she said, that some parents have decided not to enroll their children in school, either because they have yet to find a stable home or are waiting to return to their homes in hurricane-devastated areas.
“Where are they? Are they in shelters? Is it people who are hopeful they are coming back?” Ms. Casper asked.
“There’s a certain number that could be doing home schooling, and there could be some doing private school,” she added. There could be inaccuracies in the enrollment numbers that other states are reporting to Louisiana, she said.
“But I think it’s more that people, for the past six weeks, have been very fluid. There’s that instinct to keep the kids out of school until they get stable,” Ms. Casper said.
The state has requested enrollment data from other state education departments around the country as it attempts to track its students’ movements. Louisiana has then compared that total to the number of students believed to have moved from their home district after the hurricane struck, Ms. Casper said.
Charlotte D. Placide, the superintendent of the 45,000-student East Baton Rouge Parish school district, said that about 6,000 hurricane-displaced students enrolled in her district. The daily attendance of those students hovers around 4,700 to 5,000, she told the Advocate. She also said parents have told her they are worried about enrolling their children in an unfamiliar district.
In an e-mail last week, she said that “it is critical that all displaced students be enrolled in a school system and attend classes regularly. School is one of the most stabilizing factors in a child’s life and it is crucial to enroll children in school as soon as possible.”
“It is important to reassure parents that being in school during this difficult time is best,” she added.
The 9,000-student Vermilion Parish school district west of New Orleans took in about 580 Katrina evacuees, said H. Clyde Webb, the supervisor of child welfare and attendance for the district. But the district was forced to close in the wake of Hurricane Rita, which struck southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana on Sept. 24.
Though seven out of 20 schools in Vermilion Parish were damaged by Rita and remain closed, the school district didn’t lose very many of its own students. However, the number of Katrina-displaced students has dropped to about 300, and Mr. Webb said the district isn’t sure where those children are now. District officials are working hard just to keep their schools open.
“We took refugees, and then we were refugees,” he said.
Organizations that work with younger children are seeing a similar gap between the numbers of evacuees they expected and the number of children who have enrolled.
Deborah L. Kaiser, the director of Head Start/Early Head Start programs for the Gulf Coast Community Services Association in Houston, said that 7,000 children had been served in Head Start centers in Louisiana and elsewhere that were shuttered by Hurricane Katrina.
Her organization, which normally serves about 1,950 children and had opened up slots for 200 displaced Head Start pupils, has enrolled only 57 evacuees. That is despite the fact that Houston has enrolled by far the largest number of evacuee children outside of Louisiana, with more than 5,000 K-12 students enrolled in the school district.
The Gulf Coast association, one of four Head Start programs that serve the city of Houston, is trying to get the word out to families that the programs are open and ready for them. It has been a slow process.
“Transportation is a big issue,” said Stephanie Jeanpierre, 36, a Hurricane Katrina evacuee and a mother of eight. Though she enrolled her children in the Houston district, soon after arriving in Houston, she knows that other parents are holding out their younger children or high school seniors, because to graduate from Texas schools they have to take standardized tests that include Texas history.
Others are still struggling to find a place to live, and are reluctant to enroll their children until they do so, Ms. Jeanpierre said.
“It’s been difficult,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2005 edition of Education Week as Educators Discover That Tracking Displaced Students Is a Challenge