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Arms Open Wide for Katrinas Kids


(Editor's note: While some students and teachers affected by Huricane Katrina have been able to return to their schools and homes since this story first ran in September 2005, many continue to need help.)

Hundreds of thousands of students and thousands of teachers remain displaced after Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed their schools and communities. But schools across the U.S. are taking them in and helping them to feel at home. Included: Ways you can help schools serving displaced students.

Retired teachers have asked to come back to work, for no pay. Districts have opened closed schools and ordered portable buildings. Classes have welcomed new students with banners and pizza parties. And schools and communities at large have contributed uniforms, school supplies, clothes, and other necessities to such an extent that one district had to call a temporary halt to donations.

Schools and districts across the U.S. have "adopted" students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, enrolling them with minimal bureaucracy and maximum efforts to help them feel at home.

"The goal is to bring some sort of normalcy to their lives," said Rebecca Leigh White, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education. "We just want to get some structure in their lives as quickly as possible, without all the red tape. That [the red tape] worked itself out."

States and districts also have been reaching out to displaced teachers, waiving many of the usual procedures and fees so teachers can be hired quickly.


The massive displacement of families due to Hurricane Katrina has been called the largest relocation of students in U.S. history. As of September 22,2005, approximately 109,000 students from Louisiana, 100,000 from Mississippi, and 600 from Alabama remained displaced. (The number from Alabama includes state residents who are attending schools in another district or another school within their district.)

Louisiana's total at one point was as high as 200,000, according to Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Education. "The first task is to get kids enrolled and see what they needed in terms of texts, uniforms, and supplies," Casper added. The numbers have decreased because some students have been able to return to their home schools.(Resettling was disrupted by Hurricane Rita, which struck the Gulf Coast September 24, 2005, again flooding sections of New Orleans and causing damage to other towns in Texas and Louisiana.)

How to Help


See the article at the end of this story to find out how to help schools and students.


Schools in eight Louisiana parishes -- similar to counties in other parts of the U.S. -- were severely impacted by Katrina. Jefferson Parish schools were scheduled to re-open October 3, 2005. Four others, St. Charles, Washington, St. Tammany, and the City of Bogalusa Schools, were hoping to open soon after, according to the state's department of education. Schools in Plaquemines Parish planned to re-open in January 2006, while Orleans Parish had no reopening date, and schools in St. Bernard Parish expected to remain closed all year, Casper said.

In Mississippi, as many as 30 schools, almost 75 percent of the southern Mississippi and coastal school districts, were damaged, with property loss of books, technology, equipment, and buses totaling more than $1 billion, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

Enrolling students in schools in different states without their school records has been expedited by processing children using the definition of "homeless" under the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which entitles children to enroll in a school district without having to document residency. Some school records now are becoming available via the Internet.


The receptions for "Katrina's Kids" have been warm and often very personal. At McEver Elementary School in Gainesville, Georgia, a little girl from Louisiana was cheered by her third-grade classmates as she entered her new classroom, according to an article in The Gainesville Times. Another girl gave her a card saying, "Welcome."

Children and teachers have been eager to provide hands-on help. At Florence Middle School in Florence, Alabama, a tree was erected in the hall so students could pick colorful paper leaves that listed the wants and needs of 29 displaced students who have enrolled in the Florence City Schools, according to the Alabama department of education. The idea for the tree came from the Shel Silverstein book The Giving Tree, which tells the story of a tree that helps a young man with his needs, teaching unselfishness and kindness.

Linda Davis, a Gulf Shores, Alabama, native who now resides in King George, Virginia, rallied members of the community to collect school supplies for Mobile and Baldwin County Schools in Alabama and schools in Long Beach and Pascagoula, Mississippi, the Alabama state department of education reported.

Davis, a baseball coach, along with a fellow teacher, rented a 15-foot truck and with the help of neighbors and friends, filled it to the brim with more than 700 book bags, 60 teacher kits, 60 bins of school supplies, and books donated by the community's students. The two educators drove more than 900 miles September 22 to 24, 2005, to deliver the goods, the department of education said.

And Baker (Mobile) High School environmental science teacher Jennifer Stevens took her class on the road to Pascagoula, Mississippi, on September. 23, the state's department of education noted. Twenty-five juniors and seniors traveled to the First Baptist Church on Pascagoula Street to distribute needed items to local residents. During the trip, Stevens discussed the environmental impact of the hurricane, the contamination of the waterways, the clean up, and other topics related to the hurricane.


While as many as 25 states may have enrolled displaced students, a major share of them are attending Texas schools, since many Hurricane Katrina evacuees relocated there. The governor of Texas announced after the storm that displaced students could enroll in any of the state's 7,000 schools.

"For a lack of better words, we have been able to allow them to be kids again -- to blend in with new friends and continue to learn," says Michael McDonough, principal of Pin Oak Middle School, Bellaire, Texas.


About 41,153 displaced students were enrolled in Texas schools as of September 22,2005, according to DeEtta Culbertson, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency. The state is working with the U.S. Department of Education and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regarding funding. "We are trying to get funds for teachers, more rooms, and instructional-related costs," Culbertson told Education World.

Schools and districts mobilized quickly to help the new students. Asked if there was enough room for the approximately 400 students taken in by the Goose Creek (Texas) School District, spokeswoman Kathy Clausen said, "We made room. We want to do all we can to help these children. We know the best place for them is in school."

Counselors were available for the new students, and many teachers welcomed them with pizza parties, Clausen said. A $50,000 grant from the Exxon Corporation helped the district cover the costs of supplies for the new students, she added.

At another school, Pin Oak Middle School in Bellaire, Texas, outside of Houston, principal Michael McDonough personally prepared the schedule for each new student after meeting with him or her. The school's social worker, Alyson Bricker, spoke with the families about their needs.

McDonough said in a district press release how proud he was of the way Pin Oak students welcomed the new children.

"Our students have come to us and offered to share lockers, share books with our new students. Many of the evacuees were here when we had our first pep rally September 2, and each grade level welcomed them," McDonough said. "They have been embraced, they have been treated with dignity and compassion, and they have been allowed to begin to resume their lives in a warm, comfortable, safe environment. For a lack of better words, we have been able to allow them to be kids again -- to blend in with new friends and continue to learn."

Each evacuee was assigned a regular Pin Oak student as a buddy, and they were all given a tour of the campus. The evacuees and their families also went to the library, where they could select clothes collected during a clothing drive.

All new students also received student planners, and were offered an outline of the school day. The PTO donated a new blue Pin Oak polo shirt, a white Pin Oak polo shirt, and a Pin Oak spirit shirt that can be worn on Fridays for all the new students.

"It was important that we make sure that every single one of those children feels welcome here, and feels like they belong here," McDonough said in the press release. "We can only imagine what they must have gone through in Louisiana. It's our job to make sure that what they get from us is comfort and warmth, and a sense of belonging."


School officials from the Houston Independent School District, which had taken in about 4,000 children by September 16, also put in many hours helping new students feel welcome, said spokeswoman Adriana Villarreal. Teachers and staff members worked through the 2005 Labor Day weekend to enroll students, even visiting shelters to sign up children.

Community members were so eager to help that some retired teachers even begged to come back and work for free, Villarreal added.

To accommodate the new students, the district re-opened two elementary schools that had been closed in the spring because of a lack of school-age children in those areas, and hired some teachers from New Orleans. District officials tried to place them in the same schools as the evacuated students, so they could share experiences, Villarreal said.

"We had to make some provisions, but things are okay," she added. "Houston is an immigration hub, so teachers are used to structuring their lessons based on need."

The community's response to the displaced families has been so enthusiastic that at one point the district had too many school supplies, Villarreal said. Schools have organized their own fundraisers as well. At one high school, students managed to raise $15,000 in a day for hurricane evacuees. The community's generosity is especially touching because 80 percent of the children in the district are from low-income families, she said.

Teachers and staff members in the Dallas Independent School District also worked during Labor Day weekend to enroll new students. When children and their families arrived at school for the first day, school personnel were there to greet them, and breakfast was waiting for them. Parents were allowed to ride the bus with children the first day, and parents were able to tour the schools and get a feel for the routines, said district spokeswoman Ivette Wies.

The district had enrolled about 1,700 evacuated students in its 219 schools. Administrators were trying to keep the number of evacuees at each school to about 50, Wies told Education World.

"Students have been given uniforms to blend in, and they received vouchers for free lunches," she said. "We don't want them to appear different."

Within a day, community members collected backpacks stuffed with school supplies for all the children, and the district supplied parents with information packets and a district calendar.

The district is considering assigning more counselors to schools with large numbers of Katrina students, to help those students better adjust, Wies added.


"The goal is to bring some sort of normalcy to their lives," said Rebecca Leigh White, a. spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Education.


Alabama is helping out its neighbor states, even though some of its schools were damaged as well. As of the last week in September, Alabama schools had taken in 5,694 students, mostly from Mississippi, according to White, a department of education spokeswoman.

"We've encouraged students to enroll in band and sports and other activities, and the schools have been accommodating," White told Education World.

Alabama officials also expect that many of the displaced students and their families will not move back to their home states. "We anticipate that a lot of families will stay; they seem happy with the school system," White noted. "If they decide to stay, we will make it work. We want to make sure they get a good experience." If the new students become permanent, individual school districts may add portable classrooms.


State departments of education also are trying to help displaced teachers get back to work. Alabama has hired 40 displaced teachers so far. (See article.) The state temporarily waived the $49 fingerprinting fee for new teachers and is granting displaced teachers emergency certification to teach in Alabama. "We realized many had nothing but the shirts on their backs. We want to give them whatever they need," White said.

About 4,900 Louisiana teachers remain without jobs, most of them from the three most severely impacted parishes. To help them get back to work, the state is encouraging them to go to Teach Louisiana to see what jobs are available in Louisiana and other states. The Web site includes basic information about teachers' experience and certification, so teachers do not have to try to track down or replace documents.

Displaced Mississippi educators can go to the Mississippi Department of Education -- Katrina Recovery Information for Educators to learn about job opportunities in Mississippi and other states.


Even smaller districts across the U.S. were called on to help. When Mary Smith, the principal and superintendent of the one-school Whitebead School District in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and superintendents of other small, rural districts were notified that about 3,000 evacuees were scheduled to move into an area church retreat camp, they quickly called a series of meetings over two days.

"Not one school in the area could accommodate all the children," Smith told Education World. "We had a meeting of the superintendents within a 50-mile radius of the camp. The difficulty is that the towns are between 30 and 40 miles apart."

The superintendents decided that one way to meet the children's needs was to set up computers at the church camp so the younger children could have "virtual school" and enroll the older children in the middle and high schools, possibly arranging for some to attend classes at night.

As it turned out, the families were not relocated to the church camp. But Smith said her experience could be a lesson for other superintendents of rural districts. "This may prompt some other small districts to take a look at their emergency plans," she said.


In the coming months, districts, states, and the federal government have a pile of issues about student relocation that will have to be sorted out, including covering costs for teachers and materials and how to handle high school students who are due to take their state's high stakes test in the spring in order to graduate.

On a case-specific basis, the Department of Education will relax certain reporting provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act for affected states.

But some state education officials said those concerns are being addressed, while the most pressing issue -- resettling and reassuring children -- continues with fewer obstacles than anticipated.

"The response has been very positive," said Casper of the Louisiana Department of Education. "All the districts want to do what they can to help. We've heard nothing but positive things."

Added Alabama's White, "with cooperation among the states, we've solved a lot of issues that we thought would be problems."

Resources for Affected Schools,
Those Who Want to Help

Here are some resources for districts and schools looking for help after Hurricane Katrina, and for those who want to help them:

U.S. Department of Education -- Hurricane Help for Schools
Schools serving displaced students can register for supplies that they need, and donors can see what schools' needs are.

Mississippi Department of Education -- Katrina Recovery Information
Links for assistance for students, families, and educators.

National Association of School Psychologists -- Responding to Hurricane Katrina: Helping Students Relocate and Supporting Their Mental Health Needs
Advice for school personnel on how to help displaced students integrate into their new schools.

Houston Independent School District - Katrina Information
Resources for displaced families and ways to help them.