School & District Management

Houston Handles Student Influx With Few Problems, So Far

By Christina A. Samuels — September 13, 2005 6 min read
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This time, the school buses that rolled into the Astrodome here weren’t filled with exhausted New Orleans residents fleeing one of the nation’s most destructive storms.

Instead of ferrying people away from their flooded city, the buses on Sept. 8 took hundreds of excited children to school in the Houston Independent School District, where the superintendent says he plans to do “the right thing” for the thousands of children from the New Orleans area who were left homeless by Hurricane Katrina and who now are being sheltered here. “We want to show the children and their families how much we care about them,” said Abelardo Saavedra, the superintendent of the 208,000-student district.

The buses arrived the day after registration began in earnest for the children living at the Astrodome stadium and other nearby buildings, which have collectively been dubbed “Dome City” by evacuees. While the complex had sheltered as many as 25,000 evacuees early last week, the number had dropped to an estimated 8,000 later in the week as many found more permanent quarters in Houston apartments or with families.

Parents who evacuated New Orleans and other hurricane-affected areas meet with Houston school district employees in the Reliant Center convention hall to register their children for school last week. The district said it had room for as many as 13,000 displaced students.

Although the Houston district scheduled enough employee volunteers to register children 13 hours a day, only about 445 students from the large shelters registered on Sept. 7. Another 1,440 displaced students who were living elsewhere in Houston had registered by the middle of last week, for a total of just under 2,000.

District officials said they had no idea how many more displaced students might arrive in the district. Registration will continue until all children are placed, Mr. Saavedra said.

The district set aside more than 13,000 spaces for evacuated students, such as the four children of Anthony Durel of New Orleans. His family made it through the hurricane and then to the New Orleans Superdome. After two days in the squalid conditions there, the family was bused to Houston.

Money Worries

Though his children laughed and chased one another through the Reliant Center, a convention hall that is part of the Dome City complex, Mr. Durel said it was time for them to be back in school.

“This is something to keep the kids going, so I can get myself together and go out to get a job,” he said. His 9-year-old daughter Terryanna, who showed off her district-issued identification bracelet, admitted she was excited, too.

“I like making new friends,” she said. “I think they’re going to be kind to me.”

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The additional costs of serving so many extra children is as much of a question for Houston administrators as the number of students they might ultimately expect. Educating 10,000 children for a school year costs the district about $60 million, Mr. Saavedra said. In recent years, the state of Texas has provided for only about 12 percent of the approximately $6,700 a year it costs to educate a Houston public school student. The bulk of the rest comes from local property taxes, he said.

Dianne Johnson, the president of the Houston school board, said the district has already tapped $40 million from undesignated funds in its $1.3 billion annual budget. She said she’s confident that the state and federal governments will provide additional money for the education of the displaced students, who are classified as homeless under federal law.

“I really feel like we want to be a significant service provider,” Ms. Johnson said. “But there’s a cost.”

And there was the federal No Child Left Behind Act, for which the district had received no specific guidance on how the presence of the evacuated children might alter the law’s requirements, Superintendent Saavedra said.

In a conversation with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, the secretary told Mr. Saavedra that “she’s open to having a discussion on all these kinds of issues,” he said. At various times last week, Ms. Spellings said the Department of Education would be examining requests for hurricane-related waivers under the law on a case-by-case basis. (“Secretary to Weigh NCLB Waivers For Crisis on a Case-by-Case Basis,” Sept. 14, 2004)

Another issue is the federal law dealing with homeless students, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Under the Education Department’s interpretation of it, homeless students must be integrated into the regular school population. The Houston district last week reopened two elementary schools that it had closed last year because of low enrollment to handle the children from the Astrodome and other shelters.

“Those are things we’ll have to ask for variants or waivers on,” Mr. Saavedra said. “Obviously, the federal laws never anticipated something like this.”

Help Wanted

Another piece of the logistical puzzle for Houston is finding enough teachers. The district hired 300 to 400 teachers in the first week after the storm, including substitutes and those who had recently retired, to help educate the displaced students.

On Thursday of last week, the district held a job fair that was intended for teachers and other education professionals displaced by the hurricane. Some 400 applicants arrived in the event’s first two hours.

Beth Ellmer, a 4th grade teacher in heavily damaged St. Bernard Parish, La., said she didn’t normally flee storms, but Katrina’s size and fury convinced her that she should drive to safety in Texas. It was a stay she thought would only be for a few days.

“My parish is basically gone now,” she said. “They said it’ll be [next] September when they open, if it’s even that soon.”

Her district has stopped paying teachers, so Ms. Ellmer is looking for work where she can find it. The hunt has been made difficult because she doesn’t have any of her documentation with her.

“I don’t have my certificate, but Louisiana says they’ll send it to where I’m staying,” she said. As for references, “I’ve put down my principal, but I don’t know how they’ll get in touch with them.”

Some New Orleans teachers had trickled to the Houston district’s personnel office well before the official recruitment drive. Joyce Smith, a 10th grade English teacher at Sarah T. Reed High School in New Orleans, left for Texas ahead of the storm for the safety of her 4-year-old daughter. She made hotel reservations for two days.

“Go figure,” she said last week.

The day before the job fair, Ms. Smith was at the sprawling district offices, filling out pages of forms. But she was asked for her resume, transcript, and references, information she can no longer easily obtain.

“That’s a little irritating,” Ms. Smith said. “I think all I have is an e-mail address from my principal. I went to Xavier [University in New Orleans]. Well, Xavier’s under water right now.”

Officials allowed her and others without documentation to turn in their applications.

But the logistical challenges took a back seat on the first day of the Houston district’s major registration push. Volunteers handed out teddy bears, and school board members and the superintendent fielded questions from parents.

“Everybody is reaching out, and it’s nice to be able to give,” said Ms. Johnson, the board president.

Need for Privacy

Tanya and Anthony Brown, New Orleans natives who were living in the Reliant Center, a convention hall adjacent to the Astrodome, registered their five children in Houston middle and elementary schools.

The family was prepared to leave New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina threatened late last month. But even though Ms. Brown had a van, by the day before the storm struck, local gas stations had run out of fuel.

“Big old van, and we couldn’t get any gas. Not a drop,” Ms. Brown said. Instead, the Browns huddled in their home, eventually making it to the attic as floodwater rose around them. They were rescued from their roof by a passing boat and spent four days on a highway with thousands of others until a bus brought Tanya Brown and her children to Houston. Her husband was left behind because that bus was only taking women and children, and he ended up hitchhiking here to rejoin the family.

Ms. Brown, a grocery store manager, said she craved employment and a sense of privacy that she couldn’t get on a convention-center floor lined with cots.

“But your first priority is to your children, and education, in my household, is a must,” she said.

What Houston is doing “is a beautiful thing,” Ms. Brown said. “Because they have their own children to educate.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Houston Handles Student Influx With Few Problems, So Far


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