School Climate & Safety

School Leaders Assess Damages, Plan Recovery Effort

September 07, 2005 11 min read
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Education Week writers Erik W. Robelen, in Baton Rouge, La.; Alan Richard, in Gulfport, Miss.; and Christina A. Samuels, in Houston, reported on the challenges left by Hurricane Katrina.

Louisiana officials are piecing together a picture of what their school system will look like in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For now, it appears that both the New Orleans district, the state’s largest, and the nearby St. Bernard public schools could be out of commission for the entire school year, and that other districts could take weeks or even months to reopen, state schools Superintendent Cecil J. Picard said in a Sept. 6 statement to the press.

In Mississippi, state and local education officials were considering setting up portable classrooms and establishing double-shift schedules at some schools to accommodate students whose schools were destroyed or are too damaged to use for months.

And in Houston, a prime destination for hurricane evacuees, one of the largest school enrollment efforts in local history is starting Sept. 7 in the Houston Astrodome sports arena, the convention center, and other nearby facilities that have been turned into shelters that Houston residents are now calling “Dome City.”

In the aftermath of one of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, education officials from the three states are working hard to get children back in school and, in hard-hit Louisiana and Mississippi, establish plans to rebuild or repair destroyed and damaged school buildings. In addition to Texas, states throughout the country are also welcoming displaced students into their schools.

“Parents must get their children enrolled in the schools where they are taking shelter, and teachers and support staff must apply for jobs at those schools,” Mr. Picard said.

That’s exactly what appears to be happening across Louisiana, from the state capital of Baton Rouge and nearby communities all the way up to Shreveport in the north east corner of the state.

Some 30 miles north of Baton Rouge, Principal Dorothy R. Temple has seen her elementary school population grow by 80 students, to more than 670, since the hurricane struck the state’s southeast coast in late August, causing breaches in levees and flooding New Orleans and nearby areas.

“We started getting them last Wednesday,” Aug. 31, she said after helping students onto buses at end of the day Sept. 6 at Bains Elementary School, which is part of the West Feliciana Parish school system. “Our attendance clerk is totally exhausted.”

She said the influx of new students had gone relatively smoothly so far, though class sizes have climbed steadily, with some adding as many as four or five children. The class sizes typically do not exceed 25 pupils, she said.

“The challenge is going to be … getting to know these students and their families, and what their needs are,” she said.

Sarah M. Fudge, a 2nd grade teacher at the school, said she has three new students, two from New Orleans and one from Mississippi. The Mississippi student is temporarily staying with a cousin who already attends the school.

Mr. Picard, the Lousiana schools chief, said that the state education agency had already sent critical student data to operating districts across the state, and that as of Sept. 6, the same information was also being forwarded to other states that might be taking in Louisiana students.

‘The Next Step’

While the West Feliciana schools closed only for two days, others, such as the East Baton Rouge school system, were closed all of last week. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco for several days had ordered state emergency officials to use school buses from East Baton Rouge and other districts to help transport people out of New Orleans.

The 45,000-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 Sept. 12.

In the meantime, district officials have been busy enrolling students. As part of that effort, they have sent district personnel to local shelters where families are temporarily housed.

Carolyn R. Coleman, the Baton Rouge district’s homeless student liaison, estimated that district officials had visited at least a dozen shelters so far. Families may also register their children at any of the district’s public schools, though the students will not necessarily attend those particular schools.

“The next step will be to choose which schools these children will be attending,” Ms. Coleman said. “Along with that, we must provide supplies, everything from shoes, underwear, the whole nine yards. And uniforms.”

At Baton Rouge’s St. John the Baptist Church, Kawenee Hartford was enrolling 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 for her plans, she 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 to New Orleans. … That’s where I was born and raised.”

Displaced Educators Look for Jobs

Many educators from southeast Louisiana are also looking for a new place to call home. Two principals from New Orleans stopped by the East Baton Rouge district office Sept. 6 to apply for jobs.

“I live about a half-mile from the 17th Street canal, where they had the breach,” said Leonard M. Parker Jr., the principal of an elementary school in the city. He’s applied for jobs with the state department of education, as well as the East Baton Rouge school district.

Of the 80 staff members at his New Orleans school, he said he had heard from 23 so far. “I check every day,” Mr. Parker said.

Despite having lost practically all his belongings, and possibly his home, Mr. Parker, an ordained minister, appeared to be in remarkably good spirits. “You’ve got to have a positive frame of mind, and trust God and move on,” he said.

Sitting next to him, Monica Boudouin, a fellow New Orleans principal, said she agreed. She’s already registered her three children to attend the public schools in Baton Rouge. But even while expressing hopefulness, she remained visibly upset about her situation.

“I’ve cried till I can’t cry anymore,” she said, though moments later her eyes welled up.

Ms. Boudouin said that while she’s hoping to return to New Orleans eventually, a lot will depend on how things turn out for her family in the coming months.

“My heart is still in New Orleans, and it will always be in New Orleans,” she said. “But if it ends up that we’re needed here, and once we get established,” she may decide to stay put, she said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

‘My Central Office? Nothing There’

In Mississippi, hundreds of schools felt the impact of Hurricane Katrina—even those far away from the storm’s direct hit on the Gulf Coast.

High winds and a tremendous storm surge destroyed several schools along the coast. Two of the four schools in the 2,000-student Pass Christian, Miss., school district, about 60 miles northeast of New Orleans, were completely swept away. The town’s new two-story high school was flooded on the first level and had its windows and doors blown out on the second.

“There’s really just nothing there anymore,” Pass Christian Superintendent Sue Matheson said of her town’s elementary and middle schools. “My central office? Nothing there.”

Ms. Matheson, who lost her own home and was staying at a campground in coastal Alabama, joined other school leaders in districts along the battered Mississippi coast in predicting they would begin classes again between Oct. 1 and Oct. 15. Some campuses, including those being used as shelters, will be repaired and could reopen sooner. Others will require more significant repairs, such as replacing entire roofs or fixing severe water damage to classrooms.

Students in the Pass Christian district may attend class in a village of portable classrooms that will be set up near the only school in the district that did not see severe damage. That school is in the community of Delisle, Miss., Ms. Matheson said.

Paul A. Tisdale, the superintendent of the Biloxi, Miss., schools, said two new schools in the eastern part of his district saw high floodwaters. “It may well be that we may not use those schools for the rest of the year,” he said.

Double-Shifting Seen Likely

In Mississippi’s 13,000-student 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 Harrison County Superintendent Henry Arledge.

One of his district’s schools, D’Iberville Middle School in the town of D’Iberville, just across an inland bay from the city of Biloxi, saw 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.

Mississippi state schools Superintendent Hank Bounds met with officials from districts throughout southern Mississippi on Sept. 7. The state education department planned to post on its Web site information in a question-and-answer format for educators in affected areas, he said. A former superintendent of the Pascagoula schools on the Gulf Coast, Mr. Bounds said in an interview that he and his immediate family had lost their coastal home and most of their belongings in the storm.

District-level officials said they hoped to convince state leaders that some missed school days will need to be forgiven. They worried about paying teachers and other employees, how to plan for the reopening of classrooms, and what lies ahead in funding and possible drops in enrollment. Many families have moved out of the area and are enrolling children in schools elsewhere in Mississippi and in neighboring and more distant states.

Schools farther from the coast were accepting evacuees from Mississippi and Louisiana. Hundreds of evacuee students were expected to enroll in Jackson-area schools.

Mr. Bounds said the two major issues that remain for Mississippi schools are power outages and gasoline for school buses. Power remained out in most coastal communities on Sept. 6, and outages were reported in rural areas as far north as the Jackson and Meridian areas, roughly 150 miles from the coast. Gas stations throughout the state mostly were closed, and residents sometimes waited hours for gasoline. Curfews remained in effect, with coastal residents expected in their homes by 6 p.m., and in inland communities such as Hattiesburg by 8 p.m. and Jackson by 10 p.m.

Inland areas of Mississippi that saw a less-direct hit from the hurricane prepared to open schools this week. For instance, Jackson-area districts announced through local TV stations that classes would begin Sept. 8. Power outages that had lasted a week in some areas had finally begun to end.

Along the coast, police and National Guard troops sealed off streets a half-mile from the shore, barring residents from returning to obliterated homes, businesses, and schools near the water. Tidal waters had surged nearly to the level of highway over-passes near Biloxi, flooding many homes and bringing down trees and brush. Power lines were down in many parking lots, near some schools. Highways were open, but virtually no traffic signals were working in coastal areas Sept. 6, and many signs and buildings were severely damaged.

Massive Enrollment Effort

In the days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, its surrounding Louisiana parishes and other Gulf Coast areas, Texas was the first state to extend a formal welcome to evacuees, offering Houston’s Astrodome stadium as a shelter. Since then, the Astrodome, other facilities in the Reliant Park complex, and the George R. Brown Convention Center have become home to about 25,800 people and an unknown number of children.

The Houston school district says it will welcome all children in the shelter complex to its schools, and by early this week the sprawling 208,000-student system had already grown by 889 students. School officials say they have no idea how many more will enter the school system now that registration of children in shelters has begun.

“Up to this date, no one has been able to give us a number, even an unexact number, of how many kids we’re talking about,” Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Houston board of education Sept. 6. “We’re going to do the right thing,” Mr. Saavedra said.

But the cost is as much a question mark as the number of children to expect. The figure Mr. Saavedra gave the board during its meeting was sobering: Educating 10,000 children for a school year costs the district about $60 million. Normally, the state pays about 12 percent of the $6,000 to $7,000 it costs to educate a Houston public school student, with another 10 percent coming from the federal government and the rest coming from local taxes, he said.

Without subsidies from the state and federal governments far above the normal funding formula received from the state, the district could be bankrupt, board members said.

“There’s a cost to this effort—there’s a serious cost,” Mr. Saavedra said. “This is a conversation [with state and federal lawmakers] that needs to be at the forefront.”

Also at the forefront: the sheer logistics of absorbing so many children so quickly. Two-person teams, along with a support staff of school nurses and information technology employees, will work 13-hour days to enroll students in the more than 13,000 spaces that have been identified for them in the Houston Independent School District.

Two city elementary schools that were closed last year because of underenrollment have been reopened to accommodate the extra students, with recently retired district administrators running them. And 300 to 400 teachers, including retirees, substitutes, Teach for America educators who were based in Louisiana, and displaced New Orleans teachers were ready to start work Sept. 8, Mr. Saavedra said.


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