A day after Hurricane Gustav pummeled Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, New Orleans educators were cautiously optimistic today as they waited to hear how their school buildings had fared in the storm and when they would be able to return to the emptied-out city and resume classes.
The prospect of flooded classrooms and lengthy disruptions to instruction in public schools that had been in session for at least two weeks appeared to wane as early assessments indicated that storm damage to buildings was relatively minor.
Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, and members of his security and facilities team were inspecting schools today and had so far found little damage.
“We dodged a bullet on this one,” Mr. Vallas said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “There’s some minor roof damage at a few places and some doors were torn off by wind, but we’ve not found much in the way of flooding and there’s been absolutely no vandalism or theft.” He also said the district’s modular buildings—many of them on campuses still in ruins from Hurricane Katrina in 2005—had withstood the storm well.
Mr. Vallas, who is in his second year at the helm of the state-run Recovery School District, said schools would remain closed through the rest of the week. He said he hoped that classes would resume on Sept. 8, but reopening would be largely contingent on the restoration of power in New Orleans. The city’s traditional public and charter schools enrolled approximately 33,000 students last school year.
Many of the state’s school buses, including 400 from the RSD, are still in the possession of the Louisiana National Guard, which used them to evacuate tens of thousands of people and will use them again to bring people home, he said.
‘Can’t Believe This’
Though still preliminary, news that the city’s rebuilt levees had withstood the storm and widespread flooding had not occurred, brought relief to a city and public education system still recovering from the ruin and massive displacement of residents caused by Hurricane Katrina nearly three years ago to the date of Hurricane Gustav’s arrival.
Still, school leaders were anxious to see for themselves how well their schools had endured the storm. With widespread power outages in southern Louisiana and a mandatory evacuation order still in effect, it was not clear when most people would be allowed to return to the city.
Doris R. Hicks, the principal of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, had heard from members of a local community organization that the school “looked OK from the outside.” The floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina drowned the Lower Ninth Ward and the King school in 14 feet of water three years ago; the pre-K-8 school has since been completely rebuilt.
“We don’t think there’s going to be too much damage, but of course, we won’t know for sure until we get back into the city and get inside the building,” Ms. Hicks said from Dallas. “We just can’t believe this, though, that we’d be going through this all over again and on the third anniversary of Katrina.”
Ms. Hicks said she and her staff members were aiming to reopen school on Sept. 8.
Roslyn Johnson Smith, the president of the Treme Charter School Association, which operates the McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School, said she’d had no word yet on the conditions at her pre-K-8 school.
“Even if the building is fine, there will still be a lot we have to do to rev back up in time to reopen on Monday,” such as getting new food delivered, said Ms. Johnson Smith, whose family was staying in a hotel in Atlanta.
Charters Not In Loop
Like King, McDonogh 42 is an independent charter school overseen by the Recovery School District. But Ms. Smith said the charter schools—which dominate the city’s post-Katrina education landscape—had been largely on their own to find out what conditions are like in and around the schools since Hurricane Gustav made landfall yesterday. She has been trying to reach friends who are police officers and firefighters to ask them to check on McDonogh 42, a few blocks north of the French Quarter.
“We’ve not been included in the daily conference calls with the RSD, which seems to be a serious omission,” said Ms. Smith.
Despite the uncertainty around when people can return and when exactly schools can re-open, the educators said they are relieved that Hurricane Gustav did not deliver the devastating blow that had been predicted.
Still, they are preparing for discussions and counseling for students who remain scarred by their experience from Hurricane Katrina, when many New Orleans families lost their homes and were displaced for months or years.
“When the kids get back, we are going to want to talk to them about the differences between Gustav and Katrina, and that it has not been the same,” said Ms. Smith.
Ms. Hicks said with more time to prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Gustav, she and her staff members talked with King students last week about the possibility that everyone would have to leave the city again. She said she stressed to students that many of the levees that had failed after Hurricane Katrina had been rebuilt and were stronger.
“We tried to reassure them as much as we could,” said Ms. Hicks. “But one young man asked me if we would be gone for as long as we were during Katrina and if everything would flood again, so you know that the fears are still very fresh for our students.”
Mr. Vallas, the RSD superintendent, said the days lost to Hurricane Gustav would not have to be made up at the end of the school year because the district has lengthened both the school day and the academic year in 2008-09—one of Mr. Vallas numerous reforms since taking the reins of the district. The new schedule adds up to 40 days of additional instructional time beyond what is required by the state of Louisiana, Mr. Vallas said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week