Gulf Coast educators reveal tech needs

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As Gulf Coast school leaders grapple with how to rebuild educational infrastructures in an area of the country that ranks near the bottom in terms of student achievement, many in the devastated region are asking how educational technology can play a role to make sure their schools are rebuilt for 21st-century teaching and learning. In an effort to answer that question, members of the Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP), an Intel-led coalition of educational technology companies and nonprofit organizations, traveled to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Plaquemines Parish late last month to witness firsthand the scope of the destruction and the efforts to recover.

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Buras High School sits open and empty in Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, the first school district hit by Hurricane Katrina last August. Trophies are huddled together beyond the main entrance, where a door with a cracked glass window reads “Enter.”

Tiles, ripped loose from the walls during Katrina’s visit, litter the stairs, making for a hazardous climb to the second floor. Upstairs, in the library, muddy footprints peek out from under papers strewn across the carpet.

The parish suffered a great deal of wind damage and is working with lawyers, insurance adjusters, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to settle claims and secure funding for the difficult chore of rebuilding its schools, said Stanley Gaudet, principal of Buras High School. The parish has formed a task force to lead its Katrina rebuilding efforts and has brought in structural engineers to assess the damage.

Still, the labor and costs involved in rebuilding schools do not make for an easy time. “There’s a lot of political infighting,” Gaudet said of the school board and community.

The challenges facing Plaquemines Parish are typical of those facing dozens of school systems along the Gulf Coast, whose schools either sustained severe wind or water damage or have swelled beyond maximum capacity from taking in displaced students.

As they grapple with important questions of how to rebuild educational infrastructures in an area of the country that ranks near the bottom in terms of student achievement, many in the devastated region are asking how educational technology can play a role to make sure their schools are rebuilt for 21st-century teaching and learning.

To help answer that question, members of the Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP; formerly known as the Hurricane Education Recovery Operation), an Intel-led coalition of educational technology companies and nonprofit organizations (see story: Education rebuilding begins for Gulf Coast), traveled to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Plaquemines Parish late last month to witness firsthand the scope of the destruction.

Local superintendents joined the group to provide insight into their schools’ struggles in the days following Katrina, and also to shed light on what their schools need in terms of technology and other materials.

Their needs go well beyond the reconstruction of buildings that were damaged in the storm, the superintendents said.

“Immediately after the storm we received about 400 students, and we were already overcrowded,” said Warren Drake, superintendent of Zachary Schools, located about 15 miles north of Baton Rouge. “Money obviously helps, but what I’m more interested in is a blueprint for how to make these schools ready for the 21st century.” The district plans to expand a high school and build a new elementary and middle school, and Drake emphasized the importance of putting technology into those schools.

Charlotte Placide, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, also spoke of the need for a “blueprint.”

“We are [also] in a construction mode, and we … need an updated blueprint as to what our technology should be in our schools,” said Placide, whose district, like Zachary, also took in many displaced students.

With the influx of additional students, “we don’t have enough tech specialists to keep everything up and going,” said Placide. “We also need to be able to communicate and enter data with the state Department of Education better.”

Placide added that one roadblock to technology’s success is teacher knowledge. Simply putting new technology into schools where teachers don’t know how to use it is problematic, she said.

“If we have all this technology and we can’t use it, it’s absolutely worthless,” she said. “We need to figure out a way to get more teachers trained.” Placide also said her parish needs funding for school communication and security systems.

With support of the Louisiana Department of Education, the City of Baker School System hired 21 displaced teachers from the New Orleans metropolitan area. “We had children in class with uniforms by the end of the first week, before Christmas we received donations and had winter jackets for all the displaced children, and I can’t tell you how many book sacks we received from children all over the country,” Superintendent C. Lester Klotz told the group. “It’s been a very heartwarming experience for us.”

One company outfitted the district’s high school for wireless connectivity, he added.

“We can have kids in class and we can have them in uniforms, but if we don’t effect meaningful change in their performance, then we’ve accomplished very little,” Klotz said, emphasizing the need for technology in helping teachers assess students’ performance and needs. “There are gaps in performance, and the challenges our teachers faced were just enormous.”

He added: “Our teachers have worked very hard, but they’re very tired. We’ve entered into a consortium with other school systems and universities to offer teachers free graduate credits through online courses, but very few have taken advantage of it because they’re so tired.”

The ability to give teachers high-speed internet access for both classroom instruction and their own professional growth is essential, Klotz said.

Sister Mary Michaeline, superintendent of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said her district took in about 4,000 extra students after Katrina. “We don’t have the counseling services we need. We’re short on textbooks, and it’s difficult sometimes meeting the coursework these students had because they were coming from different schools,” she said. “The schools have done a tremendous job and it’s been a stress on everyone, but we’re happy to do whatever we could.”

Mayor Kip Holden of Baton Rouge praised HELP members for their efforts in helping Louisiana schools not only recover from the hurricane, but also improve.

“There’s one thing we all have in common, and that’s saving children,” Holden said. “The common enemy is a state that is ranked second in the nation with regard to illiteracy. We can talk about a learning city, but you need action to go along with the words.”

The ed-tech group also received some words of appreciation from a Plaquemines Parish student.

“Thank you for giving us a chance at a new beginning, for showing us people do care, and for allowing thousands of students to continue to get the education they deserve,” wrote Belle Chasse High School student Brad Field in a letter to HELP members.

“… Katrina can only take so much,” Field wrote. “She can take our homes, she can take our possessions, but one thing she can’t take is our memories.

“…When you come here today, you open the minds of many people, to the thought that people do care. That people do more than just throw around money and say they helped. There is so much to say, but there is not enough paper in the world to express how we as a parish feel.”

The letter, read aloud to the group before it toured the Plaquemines Parish schools, left some members teary-eyed and elicited a round of applause at the end.

Although the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has announced $1.6 billion in aid, some leaders, at press time, had yet to receive a penny. James Hoyle, superintendent of Plaquemines Parish, which lost six of its nine schools, said his district has received just $100,000 from FEMA and has not seen any funds from ED.

“We’re working with the federal side, and we definitely need your assistance,” a representative from Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s office told the group. “The governor is pushing forward, and we would love you to assist us.” Blanco was in Washington, D.C., during the group’s visit to testify before the U.S. Senate regarding the federal government’s Hurricane Katrina response (see accompanying story).

Before the storm, Plaquemines Parish had an enrollment of 5,000. Now, 2,737 students remain.

Port Sulphur High School’s front entrance remains open because there are no doors, and the main hallway is water-stained and reveals loose wires. A filing cabinet and copy machine sit around the flagpole outside Buras Middle School, which Gaudet said FEMA ordered torn down because of the damage. Lockers hang open and wall, floor, and ceiling coverings have been ripped away by Katrina’s wind.

Parish employees had numbered 820, and now 600 people currently work for the school system. The parish has provided temporary housing for employees who have lost their homes, and these communities are on school property in the north end of the parish.

FEMA will give the parish two modular preK-12 schools–one on the East Bank to serve approximately 400 students, and one on the West Bank to serve approximately 600 students. Schools also will have new wireless computer labs to accommodate the Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum’s new requirements.

Despite the significant challenges it faces, Plaquemines Parish has big plans for its schools and its technology, Hoyle said.

School libraries will have advanced media centers, and science labs will have probes and sensors that can gauge motion, light, temperature, and voltage. Electron microscopes and other microscopes with projection devices also will become part of the science classrooms.

The parish also hopes to provide networked laptops for every classroom, at a student-to-computer ratio of 5 to 1. Web-based educational programs, an auto-attendance system, an integrated telephone system, remote response pads, global positioning system (GPS) devices, digital and video cameras for classroom use, a video studio with cameras and editing devices, and interactive whiteboards also are planned.

A few miles away, New Orleans education officials are faced with the similar task of rebuilding and reorganizing their schools–a daunting mission for a school district that was among the worst in the nation academically.

Don Hutchinson, director of economic development in the New Orleans mayor’s office, said the city will recover.

“[We] will be able to change the face of the city,” he said, adding that the city’s public service departments and other organizations have faced severe reductions and limits in the days since Katrina.

The Bring New Orleans Back commission, which has committees focusing on areas such as education, urban planning, infrastructure, culture, and government effectiveness, has been created to rebuild and strengthen the city.

New Orleans Parish had 117 public schools before Katrina, and now only 17 public schools were functioning as of press time. Plans to rebuild the city’s schools are still in development.

“They will not be schools as they were pre-Katrina,” Hutchinson predicted, adding that the schools will become community centers as well. “It will be better than what it was,” he said. “I feel confident about that.”

But at press time, the New Orleans Parish, unlike Plaquemines, had no clear plan for its use of technology.

The Boston Consulting Group and Tulane University teamed up to create a skeleton outline of the future of New Orleans public schools, but this outline lacked any clear mention of technology–something Intel’s Terry Smithson was quick to point out during the HELP members’ visit.

New Orleans would welcome any input and recommendations for the city’s schools, especially regarding technology, said Veronica Chau of The Boston Consulting Group. Smithson said his coalition would be happy to help.

Before the storm, New Orleans was home to roughly 475,000 people. After the storm, that number has dropped to between 225,000 and 250,000 inhabitants during the day. Hutchison said many people now travel to the city for work and leave at night. After the workday, between 135,000 and 140,000 people actually live in the city.

City demographics have changed, too. New Orleans, which used to be around 68 percent African-American, 3 percent Hispanic, and 29 percent white, is now 80 percent white and 20 percent “other,” including African-American.

“If we don’t get involved, our fear is that the schools will be rebuilt just like they were 100 years ago, and that is going to be the same type of learning environment,” Smithson said. “Teachers will teach the same way they did 100 years ago, and that’s one of the problems in the U.S. right now.”

Smithson added that the HELP group’s efforts can serve as a model not only for hurricane-damaged schools, but for schools affected by disasters worldwide.


Bring New Orleans Back Commission

Intel Education

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Plaquemines Parish Schools

City of Baker School System

East Baton Rouge Parish School System

Zachary Community School Board

Diocese of Baton Rouge

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