School Climate & Safety

Mississippi Begins Clearing Wreckage, Planning For Classes

September 13, 2005 7 min read
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Hundreds of Mississippi schools remained closed last week in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as education leaders from this community and others began making plans to resume classes, rebuild schools, and restart their lives.

More than 80,000 Mississippi students were believed to be scattered across the state and neighboring states following the storm, which ravaged the region in late August. Dozens of schools on Mississippi’s coast and farther inland were destroyed or badly damaged.

Only concrete steps remain at Pass Christian Middle School in Mississippi. Located a few blocks from the beach, the school was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Two other district schools were severely damaged.

Still, school leaders hope to have all districts open again in early October, using whatever facilities are available and serving whatever students remain or return.

“When you do open, many of your kids won’t be back, at least for some time,” state schools Superintendent Hank Bounds told an emergency gathering of local superintendents from more than a dozendistricts on Sept. 7.

The district administrators had an almost endless list of questions for Mr. Bounds and other state officials during the meeting here at the Harrison County school district headquarters. The building, equipped with an electric-power generator, was the only air-conditioned building in town on a day when temperatures hit the 90s.

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Mr. Bounds offered some encouragement. He said he would not require student testing for the 2005-06 school year in districts along the Gulf Coast and elsewhere in southern Mississippi—the areas that, along with New Orleans and its environs, bore the brunt of the storm. He and other state schools chiefs in the Deep South also are asking the federal government for extra aid and for exemptions from the No Child Left Behind Act. (“Requests Seek Financial Aid, Policy Waivers,” Sept. 14, 2004. “Bush, Spellings Stree Help for Hurricane-Affected Schools,” Sept. 14, 2004)

“We’re going to have to look at putting [the state accountability system] off for a year,” Mr. Bounds told the coastal superintendents. “Don’t worry about testing.”

It has been just a month since he left his job as the superintendent in Pascagoula, Miss., one of the places hardest hit by Katrina, to become the state chief, and he still owned a home there.

“I don’t have a home anymore,” Mr. Bounds said during the conference.

‘You Will Graduate’

The local superintendents said they were worried about finding teachers, distributing paychecks, providing insurance benefits, replacing textbooks and student records, and serving meals before schools reopen.

Mr. Bounds responded with a lengthy list of questions and answers providing tips, and contacts to help with concerns such as enrolling homeless children, transferring student records, dealing with teachers and contracts, addressing transportation issues, and other tasks.

He promised district leaders that most school days missed by students affected by the hurricane would be forgiven. “We will survive this and are going to move forward,” he said.

Georgia firefighters making house-to-house searches for survivors or bodies stop to look at Pass Christian Middle School buses and debris blown from the parking lot and over the railroad tracks.

The group also spoke by a telephone conference call with Henry L. Johnson, who until recently was Mississippi’s state schools chief and is now the U.S. assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“The mind-set up here is, we’re going to provide what money we can provide to you … and that goes right up to the president,” Mr. Johnson said from Washington. He pledged to seek emergency flexibility in the use of Title I money and other federal sources of aid to help the schools.

“We’re going to try to get to yes as quickly as we can and as often as we can,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Bounds also said he wanted to help high school seniors graduate.

“The message to seniors is: Stop worrying,” he said. “You will graduate,” even if the state must waive some requirements for this year or provide online courses.

One superintendent suggested that some seniors be allowed to graduate early, which would free classroom space and provide a break for families still coping with the effects of Katrina. Mr. Bounds said he might be open to that idea.

In a subsequent briefing on Sept. 8 in Jackson, Miss., Mr. Bounds encouraged high school seniors to get into dual-enrollment programs in college as a way to earn extra credits, and said the state would seek $50 million to expand online education opportunities.

Jim Keith, a lawyer for the Mississippi School Boards Association, advised superintendents at the Sept. 7 meeting that teachers might need to be released from local contracts temporarily to find work elsewhere.

The situation looked far worse for uncertified employees, such as teachers’ aides and bus drivers, who were not to be paid unless they were working, he added.

But on Sept. 7, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour signed an executive order authorizing state agency heads to let local public officials put public employees on administrative leave so that they can be paid if they can’t work, said Jason Dean, the education adviser to the Republican governor.

‘Nothing There’

Hundreds of Mississippi schools felt the impact of Hurricane Katrina. And after well over a week without power, officials in charge of those sites struggled last week to determine when classes would resume and how they would rebuild their school systems.

In Pass Christian, an oak-shaded beach town about 75 miles northeast of New Orleans and just west of Gulfport, schools, houses, and businesses were leveled by huge tides and mighty winds. Locals said the storm was more devastating than the legendary Hurricane Camille of 1969.

Katrina left Pass Christian Middle School, which had been destroyed by Camille when it was the local high school, as nothing more than piles of red brick and other debris stretching for a city block. Only the school’s concrete sign, which carries a plaque marking the 1969 storm, and a small portion of a new building at the rear of the campus, remained standing.

Pass Christian school district officials meet Sept. 7 for the first time since Hurricane Katrina to begin the coordination of recovery efforts. Three of the officials lost their homes during the storm.

It looked as if dozens of bulldozers had stormed the place.

“There’s really just nothing there anymore,” said Sue Matheson, the superintendent of the 2,000-student Pass Christian district. “My central office? Nothing there.”

Meridith Bang, the principal of Pass Christian Elementary School, said she feared that many of her 460 students would not return this year. Her school was still standing, but had been gutted by high floodwaters that filled her classrooms with mud, took out entire walls, and sent desks and chairs and books into nearby yards and roads.

“I don’t imagine there are 10 [of our students left] living in our area,” said Ms. Bang, whose own home was destroyed in the storm. “I’m still concerned about the lives of our schoolchildren. I’m anxious to hear that everyone is safe.”

Other buildings within sight of the campus were missing from their foundations, leaving observers baffled about whether they had been houses or shops.

Cathy Broadway, the principal of Pass Christian High School, said she feared some students were lost. She heard that 30 bodies had been removed from an apartment complex a few blocks from her campus. “A lot of our students lived there,” she said. “If they stayed there, they didn’t make it.”

Choosing to Stay

Many school leaders are anxious about the economic losses in their communities.

“That’s going to be a serious issue for areas that depend on casinos, tourism, and coastal industries for tax revenue,” said Anna Hurt, the superintendent of the 5,000-student Ocean Springs schools.

“We don’t know the answer to that right now,” said Mr. Bounds, the state superintendent. He promised to “fight for everything we can” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources. And he announced that FEMA had pledged to provide the state with 400 portable classrooms, though it was not clear when they would begin arriving.

Any school official needing buses or school supplies such as textbooks and classroom materials was encouraged to get in touch with state officials.

In the Harrison County district, which mostly surrounds the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, three schools may not reopen for months, or even for this entire school year. “I am anticipating having to double-shift some schools,” said Henry Arledge, the superintendent of the 13,000-student Harrison County district.

One of his district’s schools, D’Iberville Middle School in the town of that name, just across an inland bay from Biloxi, had eight feet of water invade its hallways and classrooms and the neighborhood surrounding it.

The school’s cafeteria and library were filled with water and mud. Trophies floated down hallways, and classroom supplies ended up strewn about the community. A moldy stench could be detected in the school through smashed-out classroom windows.

Despite the destruction around them, school leaders down the coast in Pass Christian seemed in remarkably good spirits nine days after the hurricane ransacked their town.

Ms. Bang, the elementary school principal, said she knew her school had been destroyed. Her resolve to educate students and work toward a better community was not, however. “This is my home, and it’s all of our children’s future, and we have a commitment to our community to rebuild those basic foundations,” Ms. Bang said. “We want to be a part of the rebuilding. We choose to stay.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Mississippi Begins Clearing Wreckage, Planning for Classes

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