After two years of working to help Gulf Coast schools recover from Hurricane Katrina and rebuild their facilities as 21st-century learning centers, the HELP (Hurricane Education Leadership Program) Team is now shifting gears: The group is putting its efforts on hold and documenting its actions in hopes of serving as a model for other disaster recovery organizations to follow.

The Intel-led team, which consists of educational technology service providers and nonprofit associations, will remain intact but inactive. Terry Smithson, education strategist for Intel Corp. and the team’s leader, said he is confident the team can mobilize and go back to active status very quickly if schools in any part of the country experience another widespread disaster or emergency requiring the team’s assistance.

Although the team’s accomplishments in the Gulf Coast are remarkable, Smithson said the work it did is only the tip of the iceberg.

“We, by far, have not accomplished everything that we wanted to, because there’s still years of work there,” he said.

The decision to document the team’s actions in the Gulf Coast and to render the team inactive for the time being was made during a conference call with team members Oct. 29.

“We realized there were some really good things that came out of this team,” Smithson said. But team members agreed it was time for a new direction.

Over the next few months, HELP Team members will be working to document the team’s accomplishments in Gulf Coast schools, how the team went about its actions, and what process the team would follow should it need to reassemble in the event of a disaster or for any other reason.

The team’s web site will remain active for the next six months or so, Smithson said, but it will redirect visitors to other sites, including the SAFE (School Actions for Emergencies) Center, a joint project of eSchool News and the International Society for Technology in Education. Information from the HELP Team web site–including documentation of its work, and the emergency-response lessons it has learned–will be transferred to these other sites. At some point, Smithson said, the HELP Team’s web site would be shut down permanently.

“I’m very proud of what this team has done. We should all be really proud…” Smithson said. “If there’s any downside, it’s been continued political battles with politicians in Louisiana [over] allowing education to be helped.”

Over the past two years, the HELP Team has been instrumental in guiding Gulf Coast schools not only to recovery, but to success as 21st-century learning facilities.

In a previous interview with eSchool News, Smithson said the team formed almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck, because he and others in the field noticed that while large companies were stepping up with donations for the affected schools, many funds or products were not reaching their intended destinations.

The team’s members saw a chance to organize the donations and the distribution of funding and equipment, but they also saw another opportunity–the chance to transform Gulf Coast schools, some of the least technologically advanced schools in the country, into 21st-century learning models that would serve as examples to districts across the nation.

The team’s first meeting was in Atlanta in December 2005, and team members traveled to the Gulf Coast in January 2006 to see first-hand the devastation and to meet with educators to find out what schools there needed most.

That summer, led by the Pearson Foundation, a HELP Team partner, the team was able to offer Summer Digital Arts Camps for the region’s middle school students, who–because of the hurricane’s destruction–had no movie theaters, malls, or playgrounds. During these camps, students learned how to use video programs and created mini-movies about their experiences, which Smithson said were both educational and therapeutic for the students.

With the support of its partners, the HELP Team assembled mobile classrooms and offered them to affected Gulf Coast schools and displaced students at a discounted rate. These mobile units included a cart with 30 laptop or tablet computers, a wireless server, wireless printer, and an LCD projector. Schools in Baton Rouge; Belle Chasse, La., and New Orleans have benefited from these mobile carts.

While HELP Team members have donated millions of dollars in funding and equipment, the team’s efforts did not stop with money. A large part of the HELP Team’s objective was, and continues to be, providing guidance to schools in the Gulf Coast and across the country–guidance on how to build and maintain schools that will give students a global perspective and 21st-century skills.

The group also formed an Educator Response Team, composed of four Gulf Coast educators who volunteered to provide first-hand guidance and leadership if another similar disaster strikes anywhere in the country. These educators would provide peer-to-peer guidance for schools and districts affected by another disaster to make sure their students stay on track with their education.

“Our huge concern was that if we did not get involved, … a lot of the Gulf region would rebuild their schools in the same way they had before, which is really an 18th- or 19th-century learning environment,” Smithson has said of the effort.

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HELP Team