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How Hurricane-Impacted Schools Are Positioning Themselves as Places of Comfort for Students

With thousands in Texas and Florida impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma, many students are returning home to find their schools damaged by the storm winds and floodwaters. Gymnasiums may be flooded and windows may be broken, but schools have an important role as a central place for students to find some sort of normalcy and comfort post-trauma.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that between 35,000 and 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. Houston schools’ superintendent, Richard Carranza, is aware of the trauma for students that can result from natural disasters. Rather than delaying a new school year for cleanup, he is opening schools as quickly as possible to begin the healing process. "Schools have to be central to the recovery," he told NPR.

This is a far different approach than how the city of New Orleans responded a decade earlier in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Seventy-five hundred public school employees were let go from their jobs and public schools throughout the city never reopened. Charter schools received $45 million in funding from the Bush administration, resulting in the nation's first all-charter school district. When thousands of students in New Orleans returned to the city after months of living in shelters, they entered schools with rigid “no excuses” disciplinary policies. This only served to "exacerbate" the impact of hurricane trauma said Paulette Carter, president and CEO of the mental health agency, the Children's Bureau of New Orleans.

The chaos of a hurricane, fire, or any sort of disaster or extreme event can lead to a greater risk of anxiety and depression in children as well as an increase in behavioral issues.

Where post-Katrina New Orleans adopted more of a “no tolerance” high-expulsion policy when students returned, Houston is shifting focus towards a “community schools” approach. Carranza says schools will focus on identifying student and family needs ranging from school supplies to food and uniforms. All students in the school district will be given three free meals a day for the entire school year and additional mental health services will be provided.

The city’s schools are vital to helping children establish normalcy back into their lives, says Carranza. Coincidentally, prior to the hurricane, members of Houston’s school staff had gone through new trainings on the basics of trauma-informed education.

The time after a hurricane not only comes with its own financial and mental obstacles for students, but academic ones as well. Because of hurricane damage, many schools in Texas and Florida have had to delay classes, placing students at greater risk of the “summer slide.” A study on students in Chicago found that the number of days a student in eighth-grade was absent was eight times more accurate in predicting failure in ninth-grade than eighth-grade test scores.

For parents in Florida and Texas who are rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of nature’s destruction, getting their children back in school is one of the first steps to moving past the disaster.

"The sooner he's in school, the sooner I can start work," Michael Howard Hilburn, the parent of a Texas kindergartner told The Associated Press. "I want him to be happy, make lots of friends. He needs consistency."


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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