Gulf Coast schools still struggling to rebuild

A year and a half after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, destroying schools and displacing students, school leaders are still struggling to rebuild damaged facilities and technology infrastructures.

In January, members of the Hurricane Education Leadership Program (HELP) Team–a coalition of ed-tech companies and organizations that is helping to rebuild Gulf Coast schools as 21st-century learning facilities–took a tour of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and were surprised by what they saw.

“[We were] stunned at the lack of progress in getting recovery to these folks,” said Terry Smithson, education strategist for Intel Corp. and leader of the HELP Team. “In some places, it still looks like a bomb has gone off.”

Guided by Sandra Reed, a Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District administrator, team members saw up close the damage that still exists after nearly a year and a half.

All buildings in the six-school Bay St. Louis-Waveland district took on water from Katrina’s storm surge or from extensive roof damage. Infrastructure for both the wide-area and local-area networks was destroyed, and servers and most computers and monitors throughout the district were damaged beyond repair.

The district’s loss of buildings and contents has been estimated at $40 million. Insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency will cover some, but not all, of the cost, according to the district’s web site. That includes rebuilding two elementary schools and renovating other schools. The district has been able to replace only 120 computers so far, out of 800 lost.

While FEMA and other recovery agencies say that monetary assistance has been distributed to schools, local school and district officials say they have not necessarily received the money earmarked for their rebuilding and recovery.

About a year has gone by since Congress authorized the bulk of its rebuilding aid for the region, and nearly six months have passed since President Bush visited New Orleans on the anniversary of the storm and extolled the “amazing” reconstruction effort.

But a review of the devastated region shows that rebuilding is in a deep stall. Tens of thousands of residents remain displaced as authorities dither over how to disburse housing assistance. Many crucial infrastructure projects have yet to start. Of the tens of billions appropriated by Congress, half remains unspent.

According to the White House, the federal government has provided $110 billion for the Gulf Coast region. But nowhere near that amount of actual cash has been made available. The total is spread over five states and covers damage done by three separate storms. Some of it consists of loans. A chunk comes from government insurance payouts that ultimately derived from premiums paid by homeowners themselves.

Of $42 billion given to FEMA, the agency has spent only $25 billion, federal records show. Most of that went to temporary housing, debris removal, and emergency operations in the early days of the disaster. It has spent more than $4 billion on administrative costs.

Louisiana says the Army Corps of Engineers has spent only about $1.3 billion of the $5.8 billion it received to repair the levees in and around New Orleans. Only about $1.7 billion of the $17 billion received by the Department of Housing and Urban Development has made its way to the streets, the agency says.

In New Orleans, officials say they have received only about 14 percent of the estimated $900 million in reconstruction money they figure is needed to fix the ruined city. “We have lots of meetings,” says Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, the city’s liaison with FEMA.

There have been many complaints about misspending in Katrina’s aftermath, but most finger the federal government, not state or local agencies. In October, Louisiana sued FEMA, contending that the federal agency had tried dunning Baton Rouge for $61 million in improper or undocumented expenses. Recently, the Government Accountability Office said FEMA had misspent nearly $1 billion in recovery money since Katrina struck.

Some New Orleans schools are finding it difficult to secure teachers, leading to a teacher shortage in a city that, even before Katrina struck, was in a desperate condition with crumbling buildings, low test scores, and high dropout rates.

After the storm, some of the worst of the worst public schools were put under state control, and those are the ones finding it particularly hard to attract teachers. The 19 schools in the state-run Recovery School District have 8,580 students and about 540 teachers, or about 50 fewer than they need. About 300 students who want to enroll have been put on a waiting list until another school opens.

“Recruiting is a challenge,” said Kevin George, principal of Rabouin High School in downtown New Orleans. “The housing market is terrible. The area has a poor image [owing] to the violence. And then there’s just coming into a place that historically had just a terrible track record of education.”

In hopes of finding at least 150 new teachers for the state-run district in the 2007-08 school year, when more schools are expected to open, education officials are trying to recruit candidates at job fairs, on the internet, or through newspaper ads that show the raised hands of students and read plaintively: “We need you … so do they.”

The Recovery School District is also working with a real estate agent to help candidates find affordable housing. In addition, it plans to collaborate with Teach for America, which pairs college graduates with a school-in-need for two years.

The state-run district is faced not only with a shortage of teachers in general, but with a special shortage of well-qualified teachers. The district requires prospective teachers to pass a basic skills exam. But over the past few months, half the test-takers have failed. About one-third of the district’s teachers are not certified.

In the reorganization that followed Katrina, the New Orleans school board got to keep a few of the city’s best-performing public schools, while those that did relatively poorly academically went to the state or to private groups that turned them into charter schools. In all, 55 public schools are now open in the city, with about 27,400 students–less than half the pre-Katrina enrollment.

Many of the schools inherited by the state were run down even before Katrina, plagued by leaky roofs, lead paint, or poor heating systems. Many of the students are indifferent to learning or are far behind, with some freshmen unable to read and some teenagers disappearing for days. Some have been arrested for fighting with each other or beating up security guards. Some schools lack classroom supplies.

“This is inexcusable,” said Brenda Mitchell, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans. “The persons being hurt the most are the children of the city of New Orleans. I am appalled.”

The HELP Team is moving forward in its efforts to help rebuild the area’s schools, focusing its energy on schools that are rebuilding with 21st-century standards in mind. Team members continue to provide leadership, establish relationships with school officials, use best practices and blueprints for rebuilding, and provide some products and services.

The group says one of its goals this year is to work with state and local government and education officials to help establish “model” Gulf Coast schools that employ a 21st-century learning environment. By making certain facilities “model” schools, Smithson said, the group can provide a template for other recovering school systems to follow.

“The best way to show people the answers is to have some sort of site reference,” he said. “Clearly, education is not as it used to be there, and they [still] need a lot of help.”


Hurricane Education Leadership Program

Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District

Federal Emergency Management Agency

Government Accountability Office

New Orleans school information

eSN’s coverage of hurricane relief efforts

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