School & District Management

For Education Dept., Hurricane Issues Are a Top Priority

By Michelle R. Davis — October 18, 2005 5 min read
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The Department of Education’s acting assistant secretary for civil rights has spent part of every week in Mississippi ever since Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29.

After the hurricane, James F. Manning hurried to the area, touring demolished schools, wandering through 200-home housing developments reduced to rubble, and sitting in meetings as Mississippi officials struggled to put their education system back together.

Mr. Manning, who is also the Education Department’s chief of staff for its office of student financial aid, was among the high-level department staff members pressed into hurricane-relief duty following the storm that ravaged school systems in the Gulf Coast region and sent displaced students all over the country. They continued their work in the region after Hurricane Rita struck some of the same areas on Sept. 24.

Among the many senior department officials who have visited hurricane-ravaged states—most more than once—are Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who made visits last week to Baton Rouge, La., and Jackson, Miss., and Deputy Secretary Raymond J. Simon. Henry L. Johnson, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, who until the end of July was Mississippi’s state schools chief, has spearheaded the department’s more public hurricane response and has also spent considerable time on the ground in the region.

But the department also sent a team of staff members who stayed in the field for days or weeks at a time, such as Mr. Manning, working side by side with state and local officials.

Answering Questions

Besides Mr. Manning, the team included the department’s assistant secretary for planning, Hudson La Force, who was stationed in Louisiana for two weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck and planned to return this week; and Darla Marburger, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for policy, who was in Texas for a week shortly after Hurricane Katrina and has made several follow-up visits.

The result, federal and state officials say, is better coordination for aid, improved communications, and a deeper understanding of the educational needs of the states and schools affected by Katrina and Rita.

“It has been beneficial for them and for us,” said Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education. “They’ve got somebody here on the ground, sitting in on the meetings, understanding the issues, and that can be translated” to Washington.

The federal officials spent much of their time answering question after question about who will pay for rebuilding or textbooks and buses; whether students who have transferred to schools in new states still have to meet graduation requirements in their home state; and about what flexibility they will have on testing under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“People in the states have really wanted to talk to high-level people who didn’t have to check back with Washington on every question,” said Christopher Doherty, the chief of staff to Deputy Secretary Simon. Mr. Doherty is overseeing the department’s in-the-field hurricane team. “It’s really been an example of people working together.”

Setting Up Shop

A week after Katrina brought disaster to the New Orleans area, Mr. La Force set up shop in the Louisiana education department’s headquarters in Baton Rouge to help state officials link up with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and answer federal education questions about what the agency will pay for.

With hotel rooms in the Louisiana capital in short supply, he moved into a dorm room at a school for the visually impaired.

“Louisiana leaders were very welcoming and happy to have us there,” Mr. La Force said. “They quickly saw the benefit, which was short lines of communication and fast back-and-forth on issues and questions.”

Both Mr. La Force and Mr. Manning say they were able to forge important relationships with local school leaders, as well as see for themselves what type of aid was needed.

“Until you’re with a principal or a superintendent in one of their schools, and see and feel and smell everything around you, it’s hard to understand what the impact has really been,” Mr. Manning said. “It’s much more powerful than just seeing it on TV.”

Mr. Manning said the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina hit home for him as he stood among the ruins of a demolished high school in Jackson County, Miss., Superintendent Rucks H. Robinson pointed to a spot, just a few yards away, where the bodies of a mother and two children had been found under debris. The three were still holding hands.

Longer Hours

With so much high-level firepower occupied with hurricane-recovery tasks, there has been some shuffling of workloads back in Washington.

For the most part, work at the department is proceeding as normal, said spokeswoman Susan Aspey, though she acknowledged that hurricane issues are a top priority.

To make up for the staff resources being sent to the Gulf Coast, employees in Washington are taking on new workloads to cover other issues.

“People are working even longer hours here,” Ms. Aspey said. “It’s really been a seven-day-a-week … effort.”

The on-the-ground input has made a significant difference in the response from Washington, department officials say. Advice from Mr. La Force, Mr. Manning, and Ms. Marburger strongly influenced the administration’s plan for education-related hurricane relief, which President Bush unveiled in September but is awaiting action in Congress. (“Cuts Weighed to Pay for Hurricane Relief,” this issue.)

“It was helpful initially to find out where [the U.S. Department of Education] stood,” said Doris Voitier, the superintendent of the 8,800-student St. Bernard Parish school district in Louisiana, who dealt with Mr. La Force, and whose district was nearly wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. “He was on a fact-finding mission to see what our needs were. … Hopefully, he will help make sure there is money for impacted areas like ours.”

The field observations also played a large role in the development of a Sept. 29 announcement by Secretary Spellings that provides states, districts, and schools with various forms of flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law, Mr. Doherty said. (“GOP Plan Would Relax Rules for Storm-Affected Schools,” Oct. 5, 2005.)

For Ms. Marburger, her experience was a bit different from that of her colleagues who were stationed in storm-ravaged areas. She was in Texas, visiting school districts that have enrolled as many as thousands of displaced students. As she watched Texas students helping those displaced by hurricanes open their lockers and find a seat in the cafeteria, she said the impact of the storms on young people’s lives became clear.

“You can compare it to textbook learning versus hands-on learning,” Ms. Marburger said. “It’s very different getting that one-on-one time with superintendents versus getting the five-minute distilled version on the phone.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as For Education Dept., Hurricane Issues Are a Top Priority

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