One district’s experience

In places such as Pascagoula, Miss., school officials are working hard to restore their technology infrastructure to pre-storm levels.

Located on the eastern part of the Mississippi Coast, the Pascagoula School District has 19 schools–13 in Pascagoula and six in neighboring Gautier–with a combined enrollment of 7,500 students. Ninety percent of the homes in Pascagoula were either under water or washed away when Hurricane Katrina hit, said Douglas Belk, the district’s director of technology and an adjunct professor for Tulane’s University College in Biloxi.

Every school in Pascagoula was flooded and some sustained wind damage, Belk said. “The tidal surge, up to eight feet in some buildings, affected us more than did the damage from the wind,” he said.

“Before Katrina, [Pascagoula] had a 4,000-plus computer inventory; a vast network of printers and other peripherals, such as DVD/CD burners/players, scanners, and classroom/resource room projectors; a plethora of SmartCarts used in instruction; and other technology,” Belk said. “More than 600 computers were destroyed, along with data ports–there were eight per classroom–that were corroded [owing] to the salinity in the tidal surge.” Some printers also were lost, along with network servers, uninterruptible power supplies (UPSes, which are battery backups for servers), and the large network generator for the district, he said.

The district’s schools went nearly two weeks without any attention as employees struggled to find gas, searched for temporary housing, stripped homes of wet items, and waited for FEMA trailers for schools, Belk said.

Once school officials returned to the buildings, nearly two weeks of mold, mildew, and rot awaited cleaning personnel, said Belk. Books, desks, and other furniture, student clothing and backpacks, and sheetrock were strewn everywhere, and Belk said student records were rendered undecipherable.

The district “uses an enterprise student database by Innovak, which interfaces with the Mississippi Department of Education’s Mississippi Student Information System [MSIS], a mega-database containing nearly [all] conceivable demographic and academic data on Mississippi students,” said Belk. Pascagoula kept backup tapes of district data, and the most recent backup tape was just over a week old. Officials also were able to pull data from MSIS, which is housed in Jackson, Miss.

Fortunately for Pascagoula, “computers could be shifted from schools that had an abundance of computers to those that had none after Katrina,” Belk said. To date, 74 contributed machines and 75 emergency purchases also have helped the situation.

The district uses an electronic gradebook program from Excelsior Corp. to track student grades and attendance, so it was essential for teachers to have at least one operating computer in their classrooms to keep attendance and post grades, Belk said. All students have at least some degree of access to computers to take their Accelerated Reader tests, participate in lab-based computer lessons, do internet research and type reports, and perform other instructional tasks. “While the wait may be a bit longer than usual, at least they do have access,” he said. “The district is still quite lacking in its former computer inventory, but various businesses and industries have promised donations of nearly 350 computers to help offset the loss of more than 600 computers.”

While some substantial instructional adjustments had to occur when teachers returned to school Oct. 3, and when students returned Oct. 6, most teachers figured a way around the lack of technology equipment or found other ways to use what was available, Belk said.

“Teachers who had classroom projectors would love to be able to use them, and a number of teachers without their SmartCarts would just about dance to have them put back in their familiar places,” Belk said. “While teachers are still lacking and will be for some time, they have been troopers, along with the students, and are making the best out of what they have to work with.”

Belk said restoring the district’s technology will be a slow process. Over a period of at least the next three years, a concentrated effort will take place to get its inventory up to pre-Katrina status, and advance it a bit, while including new technology as it appears.

“The fourth year should see [Pascagoula] return to its former replacement schedule, albeit a bit more advanced than usual,” said Belk. Pascagoula “prides itself in having technology, especially computers, that is current [or] no older than one generation of technology.” District officials hope that FEMA grants and insurance settlements, which are being discussed but haven’t appeared yet, will help replenish Pascagoula’s damaged inventory. The district also will continue to accept computer donations, but cannot bank on them until the donations arrive, Belk said. “In the meantime, [Pascagoula] has to work toward a replacement purchase plan and schedule in the distant future. All in all, barring any future disasters like Katrina, we should be back up to speed’ in six years,” he said.

Because the district’s internet service provider had electricity within a few days of the storm, the district’s network supervisor was able to post an emergency web page for the district, posting his own cell phone number online for others to call and inquire about district employees, as well as information about how to make donations, Belk said.

He added: “There is no way [Pascagoula] could have gotten the head start on teachers and students returning to school [that we had] if it wasn’t for the leadership of Marvin Adams, technology coordinator for the Columbia [Miss.] School District, in getting 25 other technology coordinators and technology specialists throughout the state to come to Pascagoula and assist the district in retrieving computers from damaged schools, repairing, replacing, and reformatting them, and putting them back in the schools.”

–Laura Ascione


Pascagoula School District

Laura Ascione

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