School & District Management

‘Normal’ a Long Way Off for Schools in Louisiana

By Erik W. Robelen — September 13, 2005 6 min read
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For now, it appears that both the New Orleans district, the state’s largest, and the nearby St. Bernard public schools could be largely out of commission for the whole school year, state Superintendent Cecil J. Picard said last week. With officials estimating that more than 230,000 public and private school students from Louisiana had been displaced by the storm. Mr. Picard said it was unclear how many would ultimately return to their original communities and schools.

Louisiana was struggling last week to pick up the educational pieces after its pounding by Hurricane Katrina. Major efforts were under way statewide to place evacuated students in schools, while battered, flood-damaged districts began to assess their situation and plan for repairs and rebuilding.

Trellis Royal, left, registers her daughter Lakeithia Plearson at a school in Baton Rouge, La., with other families displaced by the hurricane. The city's public schools had signed up thousands of new students last week.

“I hope that they will all come home,” Mr. Picard said. “The reality is that they all won’t.”

In the meantime, Louisianans were straining to cope with the disaster. In a sign of the difficult times, the school board for the Jefferson Parish district, just outside New Orleans, met here last week at the state education agency’s offices in downtown Baton Rouge. The district’s own headquarters had its roof ripped off by the hurricane.

By most accounts, schools and communities statewide have welcomed their fellow Louisianans, and even a few arrivals from storm-lashed Mississippi, with open arms. Beyond the numerous shelters, many families’ homes, including those of educators, have been opened up to the displaced, since the hurricane struck the state’s southeast coast in late August.

Some 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, Principal Dorothy R. Temple saw her elementary school grow by 80 students, to more than 670 in less than a week.

“Our attendance clerk is totally exhausted,” she said after helping students onto buses home on Sept. 6 at Bains Elementary School in the West Feliciana Parish school system. “The challenge is going to be … getting to know these students and their families, and what their needs are.”

West Feliciana Superintendent Lloyd Lindsey said his largely rural school system started the school year with about 2,400 students, but as of Sept. 7 had added 300 more. The “overwhelming majority” were evacuees who came up here to live with friends or relatives, or whose families have just bought houses here in the hurricane’s aftermath, he said.

“We thought it was real important to get back a sense of normalcy,” Mr. Lindsey said. “When they come out, we get them uniforms, we get the supplies, they go to class.”

‘I’m Going Back’

The 46,000-student East Baton Rouge district, the state’s third largest, reopened its schools Sept. 6, though newcomers escaping the wreckage from Hurricane Katrina were not expected to begin attending classes there until this week at the earliest.

In the meantime, district officials were busy registering students, with some 3,200 signed up as of Sept. 7, said district spokeswoman Taifa St. Julien. As part of that effort, district personnel visited area shelters where families are temporarily housed. Families were also registering their children at any of the district’s public schools.

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“The next step will be to choose which schools these children will be attending,” said Carolyn R. Coleman, the East Baton Rouge district’s homeless-student liaison. “Along with that, we must provide supplies, everything from shoes, underwear, the whole nine yards. And uniforms.”

Ms. St. Julien said the district may well resort to using more portable classrooms to deal with the influx of students, as well as reclaiming a middle school that had been slated for closure because of dwindling enrollment.

Many educators from New Orleans and nearby areas also are seeking jobs in the East Baton Rouge system, either temporarily or possibly for good. (“Educators Wonder If They’ll Go Back to New Orleans,” this issue.)

At Baton Rouge’s St. John Baptist Church, which is sheltering nearly 150 evacuees from New Orleans, Kawenee Hartford was registering her three children, ages 9, 15, and 17.

“I lost everything,” she said. Her home in the downtown area of New Orleans was still under water, as far as she knew, as a result of the levee breaks that inundated the city after Katrina came through.

As for her plans, Ms. Hartford said: “Right now? Stay here, get a job, put my boys in school, find a place to live, and once they rebuild New Orleans, I’m going back.”

New Orleans’ Needs

One of Louisiana’s most daunting tasks will be rebuilding New Orleans, the state’s largest city, and its school system, which was already considered in crisis from problems including financial instability, political infighting, and allegations of corruption. (“District Faces Unprecedented Recovery Task,” Sept. 7, 2005.)

Eight public schools in flood-ravaged New Orleans were unscathed, and those might be able to reopen as early as January, Mr. Picard said. Those schools could accommodate 13,600 students by operating on double shifts, he estimated.

But an initial investigation found that 80 of the city’s 126 public schools would likely need to be entirely replaced, the state schools chief said. That means most of the city’s schools are unlikely to reopen in the 2005-06 school year.

“Many of our schools will need to be renovated; some will need to be rebuilt,” said Sajan George, the interim chief operating officer for the New Orleans school system and a managing director at Alvarez & Marsal. The New York City-based crisis-management firm won a contract last spring to run the district’s operations and finances, and it has a team in Baton Rouge working on the situation.

Mr. George said his office was gradually making contact with key administrators, and had already reached most of the school board members.

But besides one trip, with a military escort, to retrieve records from the district’s headquarters in New Orleans, his office has not yet been able to return and survey the situation in detail. (“Officials Scramble to Salvage Storm-Damaged School Data,” this issue.)

“They’re still doing search and rescue,” he said Sept. 8. “It’s still not safe.”

In the longer term, Mr. George suggested, the hurricane’s devastation could create a new opportunity. “If there’s a silver lining in this dark, dark cloud,” he said, “we actually have a chance to build from scratch a world-class school system.”

Surveying the Toll

Like most New Orleans schools, the St. Bernard Parish school system is also unlikely to be open this academic year. All 15 of the 8,800-student district’s buildings have been flooded and, as of late last week, engineers had been unsuccessful in pumping water out of the community east of New Orleans.

But in the 52,000-student Jefferson Parish district, next to the city, officials are hoping for a speedier recovery.

At last week’s board meeting here in Baton Rouge, board members emphasized their desire to get schools open as soon as possible, and certainly before Jan. 19, the date that some officials had initially suggested.

“We’ve got to get this going immediately,” said board member Etta Licciardi. “We’re lucky because we have schools in just about every area that have survived unscathed.”

Ultimately, the Jefferson Parish board agreed to set a target date of Oct. 3 for opening the system. But only about half the district’s 84 schools are expected to be ready for students by then.

The earlier target for opening was no doubt welcome news to Lloyd and Sondra Auzout, both educators from the Jefferson Parish system.

“We’re trying to find out our status with our jobs right now,” Mr. Auzout, who teaches physical education, said in an interview just before the board meeting began.

Mr. Auzout said he didn’t fully know what shape his home was in, but based on news reports, he believes it most likely was flooded. His biggest worry, though, was his family, although his wife and daughter were safe.

“The main thing is, I don’t know where a lot of my relatives are,” he said. “That’s the only thing that’s really bothering us right now.”

While the New Orleans area struggles to recover, state Superintendent Picard said that building schools for the 21st century would be a key to the region’s economic recovery.

“I’ll do everything in my power to rebuild Louisiana through education,” he said.

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as ‘Normal’ a Long Way Off For Schools in Louisiana

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