As the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina recede and city officials prepare to reopen parts of New Orleans to residents, education leaders and company executives from coast to coast continue to offer their support and services to ensure that students displaced by the storm have a stable education.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has unveiled a new web site, Hurricane Help for Schools, aimed at funneling school supplies to schools that have taken in students displaced by Katrina. Schools can post their contact information and the supplies they need on the site, and companies and other organizations can view this information and follow up as appropriate. Companies also can list the materials or resources they are willing to offer, and schools can search for items they might need.

Hurricane Katrina displaced at least 372,000 students from Louisiana and Mississippi schools, Spellings said in an interview with the Associated Press. Of those students, about 247,000 are from Louisiana, where 489 schools were forced to close because of the storm. In Mississippi, 226 schools were forced to close, and the storm completely destroyed nearly 30, Spellings said.

Spellings has said she will ask Congress for unprecedented authority to ease aspects of the federal law governing the education of homeless children. She also said she will consider waiving aspects of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), including requirements on yearly testing and teacher quality.

“Schools across the country are taking in displaced students, and Americans want to help them,” Spellings said. “We are committed to making sure that help gets to those who need it.”

A task force of national education leaders will meet to coordinate and distribute resources, and the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is in contact with state and local education officials to offer support. ED also declared that it will, on a case-by-case basis, relax certain reporting aspects of NCLB for affected states.

The deadlines for applying to a number of higher-education programs have been extended until at least Dec. 1.

Alex Curtis, 12, sits in front of damage from Hurricane Katrina. Curtis said the roof of his family’s home in Biloxi, Miss., was ripped off in the storm. (Associated Press photo)
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Private-sector organizations step up

Blackboard Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based provider of eLearning software, has announced a number of initiatives to help bring education back to the Gulf Coast region as quickly as possible. These include:

  • A no-cost hosting program, in which Blackboard customers impacted by the hurricane can have their online learning programs hosted by the company free of charge for the fall semester;

  • A license expansion program, in which Blackboard customers can add new accounts to their existing licenses at no additional cost to accommodate newly enrolled students or faculty members displaced by the storm;

  • An online course creation site, where instructors at schools impacted by the storm can develop online courses that will be hosted by Blackboard free of charge for the rest of this academic year; and

  • An online community site, where people can share resources and information to help restore teaching and learning in the Gulf Coast region.

“We want to get the word out to Blackboard schools that have been impacted so their students can continue learning–even if they are not able to go to an actual campus or classroom,” said Todd Gibby, executive vice president of operations at Blackboard.

Learning Today Inc. and Let’s Go Learn Inc., educational partners and providers of web-based reading and math curriculum, assessment, and instructional management systems for students in grades K-5, have announced a joint relief effort for displaced elementary-age students in the Gulf Coast. The effort will allow online assessment of each child’s reading and math skills and will deliver targeted, individualized learning programs to students based on the results, the companies said.

Students can log on from anywhere they can access a computer with a high-speed internet connection.

“We specialize in assisting students that are at risk of failing or falling behind in school, and we feel compelled to help the children who have been badly affected by this storm and its subsequent flooding,” said Dale Baker, chief executive officer and president of Learning Today. “By offering our system at no cost for the 2005-2006 school year, we hope to ease the difficult transition these victims and their schools face.”

Assessing each child’s skills will help educators place displaced students in the appropriate area of the curriculum without having their academic records available–and these assessments will be followed by an automated, individualized tutoring program to help children “hit the ground running” when they relocate to new schools, said Richard Capone, chief executive officer of Let’s Go Learn.

New York-based Icurio, a company that produces resource management software and serves the education industry, has opened up its Surplus module to the public to support relief efforts. The system enables people to donate goods and allows those in need to seek out goods.

Teachers and those wishing to contribute supplies can go to Icurio’s web site and log in using a preset user name and password. Contributors enter their contact information, what items they are offering, and the items’ quality and quantity. Individuals can request or take items they find on the site, and Icurio manages an audit trail for the process.

The National Education Association (NEA) has established a toll-free hotline number, (866) 247-2239, for schools, teachers, and school employees to apply for grants totaling $1 million. Public school employees personally impacted by the hurricane are eligible to apply for these grants to meet needs including housing, food, clothing, and other personal needs.

The NEA is also providing grants to public schools that have enrolled the roughly 300,000 students affected by the storm. These funds can be used to buy school supplies and other materials needed to accommodate increased enrollment in schools. Public schools and employees also can use the NEA grants to help displaced children with personal needs, such as clothing.

Summit Interactive, a Louisiana company specializing in math literacy tools, is offering its Ascend Math solution to Louisiana schools for the cost of installation only. The solution allows teachers to assess a student’s math foundation based on desired state standards, then recommends a targeted learning path, provides links to instructional content, and delivers reporting. Ascend is accessed through a school server and/or the internet.

The Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) has banded together with other organizations to form a consortium, called VSKOOL, to coordinate efforts and provide much-needed services in schools and other educational settings.

According to the group’s web site, VSKOOL is a consortium of online learning organizations, virtual schools, education institutions, technology companies, corporate and nonprofit organizations, and foundations working together to provide online K-12 classes, tutoring, and other educational technology solutions to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Specifically, VSKOOL will:

  • Find virtual school programs to offer courses, tutoring, and provide open seats to affected students;

  • Find highly qualified teachers with online teaching experience to volunteer to take extra students and tutor students;

  • Find corporate, foundation, and other organizations to provide support for online learning enrollment for students; and

  • Coordinate with computer hardware, software, and infrastructure providers to provide computers and broadband internet connectivity to create learning centers to run online courses for displaced students.

The SIIA said it welcomes suggestions in identifying software companies that can provide instructional, management, and learning tools that will keep displaced students on track in school. SIIA will transfer software company information to VSKOOL, where it will go out to states and education service agencies who are receiving displaced students.

The Sloan Consortium, an association of accredited higher-education institutions that offer online degree programs, is making available online college courses free of charge to students from institutions impacted by Hurricane Katrina and students serving in the National Guard whose studies were interrupted by being called to active duty in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The initiative is called “Sloan Semester,” and more information can be found on its web site (see links at story’s end).

Hertz Furniture Systems, a New Jersey-based school, church, and office furniture supplier, is donating a truckload of desks, chairs, and chair/desk units to the San Antonio Independent School District, to help the district accommodate its influx of students. The company has delivered enough furniture for eight classrooms. Hertz also has a limited supply of chairs and desks available free of charge, excluding shipping costs, to authorized school districts throughout the U.S.

Bush promises better disaster planning

These private efforts come as President Bush urges Congress to approve a massive reconstruction program for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast that could cost the federal government $200 billion or more. In a speech to the nation on Sept. 15, Bush also promised that the federal government will review the disaster plans of every major American city.

The president, who has been dogged by criticism that Washington’s response to the hurricane was slow and inadequate, said the nation has “every right to expect” more effective federal action in a time of emergency such as Katrina, which killed hundreds of people across five states, forced major evacuations, and caused untold property damage.

Disaster planning must be a “national security priority,” he said, while ordering the Homeland Security Department to undertake an immediate review of emergency plans in every major American city.

“Our cities must have clear and up-to-date plans for responding to natural disasters and disease outbreaks or a terrorist attack, for evacuating large numbers of people in an emergency, and for providing the food and water and security they would need,” Bush said.

He acknowledged that government agencies lacked coordination and were overwhelmed by Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans. He said a disaster on this scale requires greater federal authority and a broader role for the armed forces. He ordered all Cabinet secretaries to join in a comprehensive review of the government’s faulty response.

At the state level, state education departments are still working to accommodate students and teachers who were displaced by the storm.

Out-of-work educators in the Gulf Coast may find work in South Carolina, which has roughly 400 openings and is especially in need of math, science, and special-needs teachers, state officials say.

Inez Tenenbaum, South Carolina’s state education superintendent, said thousands of teachers in Mississippi and Louisiana are out of work. Teachers from those Gulf Coast areas who take jobs in South Carolina will be able to teach in that state for a year without getting certification, she said.

More than 12,000 Louisiana teachers, or 25 percent of the state’s teaching force, have been displaced by the hurricane, according to the Louisiana Department of Education (LDE). The agency is encouraging these teachers to seek work elsewhere.

Cecil J. Picard, Louisiana’s state superintendent of education, said he would make numerous requests to ED regarding NCLB, including requests for flexibility in meeting Adequate Yearly Progress and asking for Supplemental Education Services, or free tutoring, to be substituted for school choice.

LDE recently released preliminary enrollment information reported by Louisiana school districts that are accepting displaced students, and more than 20,000 students have enrolled so far, according to an agency press release. Nearly 21,000 displaced students are or are close to being back in the classroom, and six Louisiana parishes each have enrolled more than 1,000 displaced students.

Joseph B. Morton, state superintendent of education in Alabama, said the Alabama Department of Education (ADE) will issue emergency teaching certificates to displaced teachers seeking employment in Alabama. In and around Tuscaloosa, Ala., more than 200 students from Mississippi and Louisiana have enrolled in area schools, according to the ADE web site.

The Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) also has requested resources, as well as NCLB waivers and flexibility, wrote Hank Bounds, Mississippi’s state superintendent of education, in an online press release. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dispatched 400 portable classrooms to the state, Bounds said.

The MDE web site has an “Offering Assistance” link to anyone interested in donating supplies, materials, and equipment. The web site also has a “Hurricane Katrina Disaster Page” that provides information and other valuable links.

Mississippi has a uniform online system for collecting and storing student data, called the Mississippi Student Information System, that has been in place for five years, said Kameron Ball, director of federal programs in the Rankin County district in Brandon, Miss. Ball is the former state educational technology director for MDE.

Student records, grades, class schedules, and other vital information pertaining to the state’s displaced students can be accessed through this system. “We have this information that otherwise would have washed out to sea with the storm surge,” Ball said.

Once a displaced Mississippi student has been located in a new district in the state, this district will secure “ownership” of the student from MDE. When a district obtains ownership, the displaced student’s name and academic records can be used to help school officials make decisions about class placement and grade, Ball said.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Hurricane Help for Schools
http://hurricanehelpforschools.gov/index.html

Blackboard’s Katrina Relief site
http://www.katrina.blackboard.com

Learning Today Inc.
http://www.learningtoday.com

Let’s Go Learn Inc.
http://www.letsgolearn.com

Icurio
http://www.icurio.org

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

Summit Interactive
http://www.evrmath.com

Software and Information Industry Association
http://www.siia.net

VSKOOL
http://www.vskool.org

Sloan Consortium
http://www.sloan-c.org

Sloan Semester
http://www.sloansemester.org

Hertz Furniture Systems
http://www.hertzfurniture.com

South Carolina Department of Education: Teacher Quality Division
http://www.scteachers.org

Louisiana Department of Education
http://www.doe.state.la.us/lde/index.html

Alabama Department of Education
http://www.alsde.edu/html/home.asp

Mississippi Department of Education: Hurricane Recovery site
http://www.mde.k12.ms.us/Katrina