A uniformed sailor from a nearby Navy support station blew “Reveille” on his trumpet near the entrance to William J. Fischer Charter Elementary School in New Orleans on Aug. 7, as students and parents walked down freshly painted hallways adorned with colorful murals and saw the school’s new computer lab.
Carrying a heavy book sack on his shoulders, 12-year-old Jermaine Gibson wasn’t complaining a bit about the first day of classes.
“The summer was boring. There was nothing to do. I’m glad to be back,” he said.
Fischer, one of the city’s low-performing schools before Hurricane Katrina, was among eight public schools in New Orleans that reopened Aug. 7, giving more than 4,000 students an early start on the school year and advancing a reform movement that has blossomed after the storm devastated the city about a year ago.
More than 40 other New Orleans public schools are scheduled to open by mid-September for an estimated 30,000 students in what is planned as a rebirth of one of the nation’s worst school systems, which had about 60,000 students before the storm.
Classes were small on the first day, with only about a dozen or fewer students in each, but Fischer spokesman David Grubb said he expects enrollment to climb in the coming weeks. “Some people just haven’t come back yet,” he said of those who have not returned since the hurricane.
For those who have, the city’s school system is vastly different from the one they experienced before the storm.
For one thing, potential problems still abound for the beleaguered school system. Opening dates for several schools are in question, and state officials have acknowledged difficulties in finding enough teachers.
Also, understanding who runs each school almost requires a scorecard. Seeing a post-Katrina opportunity to improve one of the nation’s worst school systems as the city rebuilds, Louisiana’s legislature allowed the state to take control of more than 100 low-performing New Orleans schools.
Proponents of the move say it would be hard for the city’s public schools to get any worse. Before Katrina, there was a long history of squabbling among board members. Mismanagement in the school system’s offices resulted in criminal convictions and huge budget deficits. Buildings were in terrible shape, performance on standardized tests was poor, and the school system was on the brink of financial collapse.
While a handful of schools remain under the authority of the troubled Orleans Parish School Board, the board has voluntarily allowed some schools to be run as charter schools, which receive public money but operate independently. And it has been relieved of authority over more than 100 schools by the state education department, which is running some of them itself and chartering others.
The various schools and governing entities have resulted in a variety of registration and starting dates–a source of confusion for parents.
There are no geographic requirements in the revamped system. Any student, living anywhere in the city, can register for any school on a first-come, first-served basis or by lottery–placing schools in competition for students and state funding, which is based on attendance.
The city’s teachers union has criticized the disorganization and called for one central system to enroll students, hire teachers and other employees, distribute textbooks, and get chairs and desks to schools.
“The confusion facing public education in New Orleans at the start of the new school year is deeply troubling,” United Teachers of New Orleans President Brenda Mitchell said. “After months of promises that the new New Orleans school system will be a model for the country, the state is debuting an utterly chaotic and dysfunctional system.”
Leslie Jacobs, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, acknowledged there were still some problems but said she was thrilled with the transformation in the city’s schools.
“This is huge,” she said. “What’s happening in New Orleans is turning into a national model on [school] choice.”
‘A world of hurt’
Outside New Orleans, other Gulf Coast schools also are trying to find paths to recovery.
Plaquemines Parish, located just south of New Orleans and the first place hit by Katrina after the storm gathered force as it surged across the Gulf of Mexico, plans to open three more schools by September. Six of the parish’s nine schools were destroyed during the storm, and only four schools were open as of press time.
In Mississippi, most schools affected by Katrina were set to reopen in early August, but officials said they had no clue how many students to expect this school year.
Harrison County, Miss., schools opened Aug. 4. But Superintendent Henry Arledge said some schools are still in need of repair work. “We’re going to start, but we’ve got problems,” Arledge said. “We’re going to take care of the children and make things work. We’re just out of time.”
Aiding in the rebuilding efforts are several companies and nonprofit organizations. The Intel-led Hurricane Education Leadership Project (HELP) Team, for instance, has been working with Louisiana and Mississippi school systems to ensure that when schools are rebuilt, they are constructed as 21st-century facilities with the technology they lacked before the storm.
The school stakeholders of New Orleans in particular are “in a world of hurt,” HELP Manager, Terry Smithson said. “They’re making progress, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty as to how many students are going to return. The mayor and everyone else understand that if the city doesn’t have education, people won’t come back.”
He added: “New Orleans is totally retooling the [school] environment, and there’s not another district in the country that I know of that has to be retooled like this.”
Other organizations are helping to make virtual education available for displaced students. Through vSKOOL, a consortium of education organizations and for-profit companies trying to restore education to the Gulf Coast, the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) has lined up virtual schools willing to provide free or discounted seats, courses, credit recovery, or other assistance. The Florida Virtual School, for instance, has donated seats for hurricane victims.
The Capital Area Corporate Recycling Council (CACRC), a nonprofit organization in Baton Rouge that promotes waste reduction and the use of recycled goods, is working to provide computer equipment for students displaced by Katrina. After the hurricane, CACRC began a campaign to collect computers from around the country to refurbish for use by students and other storm victims.
Within a few months of the hurricanes, CACRC collected more than 2,000 computers from organizations and individuals across the country. More than 1,120 computers went to damaged schools and nonprofit organizations, and 600 went to individuals. Most computers went to schools in Louisiana, and some found their way to affected Mississippi areas as well.
CACRC representatives said the company hopes to reach 5,000 donated computers by the end of the year, because the need for technology in the region’s schools is still so great.
In March, the Alabama Department of Education announced plans to offer SAS inSchool’s Curriculum Pathways online learning tools free of charge to Alabama educators and students. Among Alabama school systems, Mobile County was hardest hit by the storms. Curriculum Pathways offers online learning materials for several core disciplines, including English, math, history, science, and Spanish.
Any Alabama secondary school may use Curriculum Pathways free of charge through July 2007. Schools should contact the Alabama Department of Education for more information.
The Alabama gift demonstrates a wider SAS initiative to make Curriculum Pathways available to all U.S. secondary schools serving students displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. SAS is providing more than $3.5 million in software and services to state and local government and schools in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi to manage relief dollars, track costs associated with rebuilding, and consolidate information in reports to the federal government, the company said.
Other schools are the beneficiaries of a new federal program that is contributing surplus furniture and other supplies to storm-ravaged schools in the Gulf Coast region. Hancock County Middle School in Kiln, Miss., received more than 200 computers and 100 printers from the Furniture for Schools Task Force. The donation, valued at close to $1 million, will help to replace the school’s computer equipment, which was damaged by flooding from Katrina.
Funding still needed
While schools continue to recover, funding remains a priority.
The first funding installments from the Hurricane Education Recovery Act were handed out in January, and all the monies were scheduled to be distributed by mid-summer. (Federal officials could not be reached to confirm whether this goal had been met by press time.) The $1.4 billion in federal dollars included $645 million in Impact Aid, $750 million in Restart Aid, and $5 million in Homeless Aid.
States had to apply for Impact Aid by Feb. 2, and all but Hawaii applied. In March, the first installment of Impact Aid was sent to states. Louisiana received $35.6 million, Mississippi received $13.6 million, Texas received $35.2 million, and Alabama received $5.4 million. Roughly $30.2 million was sent to other states.
At the end of June, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials said the agency had spent $385 million in the aftermath of last year’s hurricane season to rebuild schools, provide temporary classrooms, and purchase books and supplies for students in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.
In early August, Louisiana state officials were reviewing plans to spend another $200 million in hurricane relief aid to help repair damaged schools. Schools being completely rebuilt will have to follow certain design criteria developed by state officials– such as smaller schools with integrated technology, adjustable lighting, flexible classrooms and equipment, and other design and safety standards.
Though FEMA is covering much of the costs of repairing hurricane damage to schools around south Louisiana, local officials are required to pick up 10 percent of those repair costs. Some other items, including fire code violations and damage not resulting directly from the hurricanes, aren’t covered by FEMA.
The $200 million pool of federal block-grant aid will provide the 10-percent match to the FEMA dollars for local public school systems and will cover the costs of some other emergency needs that might not be eligible for FEMA reimbursement, said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA).
Lawmakers on a joint House and Senate education panel applauded the plans presented Aug. 8, saying these criteria will ensure that funding is appropriately spent. Local school systems will have to apply for the repair money, and the LRA, governor’s office, state legislature, and education department will review the projects for approval.
Kopplin said estimates of the remaining school repair costs reach as high as $387 million, but LRA officials didn’t want to set aside that much in aid until they had a better idea of local requests. He said he expected all needed school repairs would be covered with the federal block-grant dollars.
Many challenges remain
Money and donations aside, many challenges still remain for Gulf Coast school leaders. Aside from the need to rebuild their technology infrastructures, many school systems are struggling with low attendance, the New York Times reported in May.
“Of the 560 children who are evacuees and were enrolled in the Baker (La.) school district in mid-September, only 190 were still attending when the school year ended on May 19,” the Times reported. This, the story said, could indicate permanent dropouts. “Parents, children, and educators give a variety of reasons for the children’s truancy. Most families have moved several times since the hurricane, and children grew frustrated when they could not catch up.”
Because some parents thought they would be returning home much sooner, they did not enroll their children in school, the Times reported, adding: “Both parents and children also cited separation anxiety and the perception that they were not welcome by their host students or teachers.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of Texas districts are wondering how they will pay for the estimated 31,000 students expected to return to the state’s public schools this fall after they were displaced by Katrina last year.
The millions of dollars in federal funding these districts received after the sudden influx of students isn’t coming this year.
The federal government disbursed about $890 million to school districts nationwide last year to cover expenses related to Katrina-displaced students. Texas, which had 329 school districts take in 46,000 students from the storm, received $255 million.
But the federal government said it will not provide aid for the upcoming school year. And state and federal officials, meanwhile, have been disputing who should pay for ongoing needs such as behavior counseling, tutoring sessions, and other programs.
“This is an anomaly, and the rules don’t really work in this case,” Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to do what’s right for our kids. We’ll do whatever it takes. But we’ll continue to ask the government for as much help as we can.”