Student Well-Being

Needs of Displaced Students Emerge as Issue for Districts

By Catherine Gewertz — September 16, 2005 5 min read

As schools scrambled to absorb hundreds of thousands of students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, experts last week urged administrators to consider and plan for a host of academic and emotional issues that could come along with them.

Education researchers and experts in psychology recognize that school leaders may feel overwhelmed by the demands of accommodating scores of new students so quickly. But they urged them to try to strike a balance between meeting children’s immediate physical needs—for clothes, books, a seat in class—and meeting their scholastic and mental-health needs.

Among the many considerations to be weighed are how to distribute the newcomers within a district, how schools can keep those children from falling behind, how teachers and counselors can understand and respond to their behavior, and how staff members can best welcome students from different cultural backgrounds.

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“We just have so many children starting over,” said Diana Bowman, the director of the National Center for Homeless Education, a Greensboro, N.C.-based group that is helping with re-enrollments for children who fled Katrina. “There’s an awful lot to do.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings estimated last week that the hurricane had displaced 372,000 students from public and private schools and colleges in Louisiana and Mississippi. Scores of school districts, from Anchorage, Alaska, to the District of Columbia, were enrolling the children.

Multiple Needs

Ms. Bowman said a key concern was getting the students special academic help, such as tutoring or after-school programs. Studies show that a child who transfers schools just once often needs four to six months to catch up academically, she said.

“Most of these children will have moved several times, so that certainly is going to put them behind,” she said. “They’re going to need a lot of resources.”

Absorbing the displaced children into a classroom effectively requires that teachers use a lot of flexible groupings and individual attention so they can recognize each student’s needs and respond swiftly and appropriately, said Robert E. Slavin, the principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

Mr. Slavin advised district leaders to avoid creating large groupings of the new children in any given school. Many of those evacuated from the Gulf Coast region are poor, and research shows that high concentrations of poverty in any one school can hamper students’ achievement, he noted.

“This should be a priority, but [school officials] have so much else they are dealing with, my guess is these decisions will be made based on where they have vacancies, rather than other factors,” he said.

An incident in Houston last week heightened such concerns. A teenager at Jesse H. Jones High School threw a soda can at students from New Orleans, sparking a fight that involved about 20 students, said district spokesman Terry Abbott.

Some of the Jones High students told the Houston Chronicle they resented the 200 newcomers, far more than had been assigned to other high schools. Mr. Abbott said district officials were weighing reassigning some of the displaced students.

In Jackson, Miss., officials worried that adding 720 children to their 31,600-student district would result in crowded classes. Superintendent Earl Watkins said he needed money to hire teachers, since he started the year with 13 vacancies, and now needs even more teachers to maintain class sizes.

Some leaders in early-childhood education were concerned that 3- and 4-year-olds from the Gulf Coast might miss out on the advantages of attending preschool. While federal law requires districts to enroll homeless school-age children, no such law applies to their younger counterparts.

Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., noted that more than 38,000 children were enrolled in state-financed or federally funded preschool programs in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“You have a situation where the most disadvantaged kids are going to lose the gains they would have gotten in pre-K, and will fall behind as a result,” he said.

Mr. Barnett urged Head Start, the federal preschool program, to ensure that children are re-enrolled in their new towns. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, announced last week that it was releasing $15 million to help local grantees provide services to evacuated families.

Cultural Awareness

As school districts enroll displaced children, the arriving students in many cases are of a different race, class, or culture than the children they are joining. The challenge of inclusiveness—a significant one for schools even in the best of times—then becomes greater, experts said last week.

Andrea Young, the vice president of the Washington-based National Black Child Development Institute, said teachers face “a real issue of cultural competence” in blending the new students into their classes.

“They need to think about how they can be more culturally sensitive,” she said. “Are there any materials in their classrooms that reflect something of the background of these new kids? Are there images in the classroom that might be familiar to them? These things would be a start.”

It’s important for teachers to build caring relationships with the new children, and facilitate support from their new classmates, said James P. Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University’s Child Study Center. Teachers need to recognize that Hurricane Katrina survivors might act angry, withdrawn, or apathetic, he said. They should be understanding, while not condoning misbehavior.

“Just being kind to someone doesn’t mean they’re going to behave,” said Dr. Comer. “Show empathy. Express the expectation that they are going to get through this. But don’t tolerate misbehavior because they’ve had a hard time.”

He also suggested that teachers view the children not as victims, but as experts with something important to bring to classroom discussions about the hurricane.

In a classroom at Mississippi’s George Elementary School in Jackson, a 5th grader named Zia, whose New Orleans home was destroyed, is making her adjustment. A girl who sits nearby has “adopted” her, getting folders and paper for her, escorting her to the restroom, and holding her hand, said their teacher, Sharon Turner.

“I just wanted to cry when she got here, because my heart goes out to her,” Ms. Turner said. “But I told my class, we will not call her a displaced student. She is Zia, and that’s what we are going to call her. We are a family, and now we have another sister to add.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2005 edition of Education Week as Needs of Displaced Students Emerge as Issue for Districts

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