“We have one huge fear,” said James Hoyle, superintendent of the devastated Plaquemines Parish School District, located some 10 miles down the Mississippi River from New Orleans. “We’re afraid the rest of the country will forget us.” Six of his nine schools were lost to Hurricane Katrina, which hammered the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

With earthquakes, mine disasters, and congressional scandals dominating the news of a young 2006, that fear, at press time, seemed completely well founded. Not until early January did funding at last start to trickle from the U.S. Department of Education. But even then, nothing emerged from the roundly maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)–nothing, that is, but bureaucratic bungling and infuriating delays, to hear Gulf Coast educators tell it.

As one frustrated school official put it in mid-December: “We haven’t seen one penny from FEMA. They’re the slowest people I’ve ever seen. Their paperwork has to be so thorough that it takes seven FEMA desks to decide whether to rebuild or to raze and start over.”

Not willing to depend solely on the glacial progress of FEMA and other government agencies, some 50 ed-tech corporate executives, state officials, and local educators came together on Dec. 13 for a strategy session organized by Intel Corporation. The high-level conclave focused on how to harness ed-tech know-how to help educators rebuild and restore the technology resources of hundreds of schools and colleges throughout the Gulf Coast.

Terry Smithson, Intel education strategist, hosted the meeting at the headquarters of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Supt. Hoyle spoke at the strategy session.

“We feel very honored to be here,” said Hoyle, who attended with key members of his team. “Of course … we feel very honored to be anywhere.”

Smithson guided the day-long strategy meeting. “This is not an effort to get donations,” he explained. “Everyone has already donated. This is an effort to form a team. When we all pull in the same direction, we can get more done.” Here is the hope of the Intel coalition–dubbed the Hurricane Education Recovery Operation (HERO) at the urging of a representative of the Georgia Department of Education: HERO will work with state education agencies and local educators to replace ruined schools with community learning centers outfitted not just with the latest technology but also according to state-of-the-art concepts about implementing technology in education.

Beginning just weeks after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the private sector has consistently outstripped government agencies in attempting to bring aid and comfort to Gulf Coast educators. On Dec. 21, Congress finally authorized $1.6 billion in federal education relief, but not before including a controversial provision critics quickly labeled a national “voucher scheme.” The federal funding authorization for education relief was included in a defense spending bill.

Approximately $750 million of the aid is intended to help Gulf Coast public and private schools reopen. Another $645 million will go to help public and private schools across the nation that have enrolled displaced Gulf Coast students. (U.S. education officials estimate there are some 372,000 such students.) And $5 million is intended to help educate children made homeless by the hurricanes.

Colleges are slated to receive $200 million, of which $190 million will be divided evenly between the higher education governing boards in Louisiana and Mississippi for distribution to individual campuses. The remaining $10 million will go to colleges elsewhere to support displaced students. Higher education advocates had originally requested $500 million.

In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings vowed to deliver the money rapidly wherever it is needed. She said she would work with chief state school officers in distributing the funding. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said the money “will allow much needed relief to finally reach the students, families, and schools impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.”

Under the one-year deal approved by Congress, schools that enroll displaced K-12 students can be reimbursed for up to $6,000 per student, or $7,500 for each student with a disability. The money will flow through public school districts, which will be responsible for passing it along to private schools, including religious schools, with eligible students.

Supporters say this plan is not a voucher program because public money will go to private schools as reimbursement for helping students, not to parents as private-school coupons. Critics call it a voucher program that will sap money from public schools and perhaps set a precedent for national expansion.

“Inserting a voucher scheme into the defense bill … represents an end-run around the legislative process,” said Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association.

In what appeared to be the first actual disbursement of federal education relief funds, Spellings announced on Jan. 5 that $253.75 million was available to schools in four states: Louisiana ($100 million), Mississippi ($100 million), Texas ($50 million), and Alabama ($3.75 million).

In Louisiana, New Orleans was among the highest planning priorities. Multiple commissions and committees were struggling to decide what do about education and everything else in the flood-ruined city. On Jan. 11, the Bring Back New Orleans commission, headed by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, began to release tentative recovery plans. Scott S. Cowen, president of Tulane University, chairs the commission’s education committee.

To improve a school system long ranked among the worst in the nation, said Cowen, the commission has endorsed a plan that breaks the school district into clusters of from 8 to 14 schools. Whether the plan actually will be implemented is unclear, however, because local officials no longer control most of New Orleans’ schools. In November, the state assumed control of 102 of the Orleans Parish School Board’s 129 schools. State Assistant Superintendent Robin Jarvis is in charge of a so-called “recovery district,” which encompasses the 102 state-controlled campuses.

According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper, state officials are in no hurry to open any of the public schools in the recovery district. At press time, the state had opened none of the schools under its control. The local school board had opened two–Ben Franklin Elementary and Eleanor McMain Secondary. On Jan. 8, the Orleans Parish School Board voted unanimously to open the McDonogh No. 35 High School on Jan. 17.

Jarvis said 17 public schools were scheduled to open late in January, with capacity for approximately 12,000 students. The assistant state superintendent told the Times-Picayune that at least three more schools are set to open as charter schools in the fall.

Opening schools in New Orleans will be determined by supply and demand, according to state Education Superintendent Cecil Picard. Projections reportedly indicate that New Orleans will have approximately 15,000 students by August. By local estimates, some 60,000 students were enrolled in New Orleans public schools before Katrina.

Finding qualified staff for New Orleans schools when they eventually do open will be challenging. According to the New York Times, the city was planning to terminate all but 61 of some 7,000 school employees who had been placed on disaster leave. Because local tax receipts were devastated in the wake of Katrina, the city now faces a storm-aggravated financial crisis along with everything else. The situation is dire, because New Orleans was near bankruptcy even before Katrina.

Financial chaos has made New Orleans an impromptu laboratory for “school choice,” the New York Times reported. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, has issued an executive order to make it easier to form charter schools. The federal government reportedly has allocated $20 million in aid to fund charter schools in Orleans Parish. At press time, 21 charter schools reportedly had been approved by state and local officials.

Not everyone welcomes charters, not even some educators involved with them. Resentment smolders that state and local officials haven’t done more and moved faster to restore public education in New Orleans.

“We never wanted to charter–that was never our intention in the past,” Carol Christen, principal of Franklin Charter High, told the New York Times. Before Katrina, she led the Benjamin Franklin High School, reportedly the highest ranked secondary school in the state. “This has been a long ordeal,” Christen is quoted as saying, “because no one wanted to help us open up the school. This has been a nightmare, a struggle beyond struggle.”

About 10 miles southeast of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish, the struggle is no less daunting, but the prospects for recovery are considerably brighter–thanks, it appeared, to sound parish leadership, a unified school board, and Supt. Hoyle.

Unlike the Orleans Parish schools, which were problem-plagued well before the wind and water of Katrina, the Plaquemines Parish schools have plenty of troubles but also reasons for optimism. With a high-percentage minority population and substantial numbers of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an emphasis on student discipline, academic excellence, and state-of-the-art technology kept Plaquemines schools among the top performers in the state before Katrina, according to Hoyle. All that washed away in August.

“What you don’t realize,” he said, “is the life’s work of countless teachers has been wiped out. Two-thirds of all students lost all medical records and will need to be re-immunized.

“Today,” he said on Dec. 13, “Plaquemines still looks like Hiroshima [after the atomic bomb] – nothing but devastation and rubble for 60 miles. And the silence is devastating.” Electricity has been out for months. At night, he said, complete darkness joins the eerie silence to cloak the landscape.

Even so, leadership keeps hope alive. Right after the hurricane, the school district–at its own expense–brought in trailers and set up temporary housing for teachers and staff. “We guaranteed we wouldn’t lay anyone off,” said Hoyle. “That means we still have two teachers in many classrooms, but that’s all right.”

Unlike New Orleans, where the district is engaged in wholesale layoffs, Plaquemines still has 620 of its pre-hurricane staff of 850. “We went out and wrote grants,” Hoyle explained. Plaquemines’ team of dedicated educators, immersed in the life of the community, will enable the schools to rebuild, said Hoyle: “Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but we will be back, and we’ll be better and stronger than ever before.”

Links:

Plaquemines Parish Schools
http://www.ppsb.org/

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

Intel Education
http://www97.intel.com/education/

Louisiana Department of Education Recovery District Info
http://www.doe.state.la.us/lde/rsd/home.html

New Orleans Public Schools
http://www.nops.k12.la.us/

Federal Emergency Management Agency
http://www.fema.gov