Texas opens schoolroom doors wide
HOUSTON — No cheerleading squad. No letter jacket. No homecoming court. That's the devastation hurricane Katrina wrought on Louisiana high school sophomore Andria Smith when she found out her school, which is nestled at the tip of the Louisiana boot near the mouth of the Mississippi, was swamped in 17-foot floodwaters.
"I thought I'd never go to school again," she says. Her adoptive parents thought otherwise. As soon as Leon Houston and his wife realized that his family would not be returning to Louisiana in the near future, he enrolled Andria and her sister Adrienne in Alvin High School, which is located just outside Houston.
"I didn't want the girls wasting time, watching TV all day," says Mr. Houston, who along with an estimated 250,000 other people, sought refuge from the storm in the Houston area. "I want them to move on, make friends, and finish their educations."
Although Katrina has brought hardship to Houston's family, he credits Texas - a state whose good-neighbor status has recently skyrocketed - with easing his mind a little, at least about "his girls' educations."
The Houston family is not alone. In the wake of Katrina, thousands of school-age evacuees have enrolled in Texas schools. Although no hard numbers are in, the Houston area alone could stand to gain 40,000 students. So far, schools have been happy to oblige, welcoming evacuee students with school supplies, backpacks, clothing, toiletries, and even gift cards to local stores.
"I want stranded families to know the doors of Texas's public schools are immediately open to your children," Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said. Although Texas will bear some of the financial burden of schooling evacuees, the per-pupil federal dollars that would have gone to Louisiana schools will likely be diverted to Texas. Since this is so unprecedented, Texas will work out the details later.
Texas officials are waiving typical enrollment procedures that require official transcripts, medical records, and proof of residency by categorizing these "new" students as "homeless." Under the No Child Left Behind legislation, homeless students can enroll in a public school as long as they are residing in that school's district, whether that finds them in hotels, shelters, or even the Astrodome.
"My three boys are commuting to school from our hotel," says Colleen Moore, whose New Orleans home was flooded by Katrina. "Although my son Michael thought it was strange to start first grade twice, I think it's great my [boys] are in school." In fact, Mrs. Moore says that the Beaumont, Texas, school system has been so accommodating that two of her sons were given musical instruments so that they could continue the lessons they had been receiving in New Orleans.
Even though displaced students will likely make Texas classrooms more cramped, Texas students seem not to mind. "It's just the right thing to do," says Pierce McGrath, a junior at Kingwood High School, north of Houston. "I know our football team is excited because there was a big guy from Louisiana that enrolled."
Pierce's hospitable attitude is echoed by school officials and administrators, who are rallying their faculties to be courteous and welcoming to all hurricane evacuees. "The process is going well," says Byron Foster, who serves as an assistant principal at Alcott Elementary School in Houston. "Texas will answer this call."
Although Mr. Foster is set to welcome up to 200 new students into his school this week, he does admit that he and other school administrators worry about how this influx of evacuee students will impact Texas's high-stakes emphasis on accountability. "School accountability is always a concern," Foster says, "But we can't worry about that now. My school's scores may go up or down, but I have to do what's right for these children."
Public schools, meanwhile, are not the only ones putting out the welcome mat. Private schools throughout Texas are also enrolling evacuee students who apply and most are waiving tuition fees, which at some top-of-the-line parochial schools can rise above $15,000 per year.
"There are a lot of untied ends so far, but we want to get these students into school, in a stable environment, as soon as possible," says Bill Cheney, principal of The Branch School, a private school in West Houston. "We want these students to be in an environment where they will be cared for - that will help them rebuild their lives and give them a sense that they are moving on."
Second-grader Sidney Taylor, who enrolled in The Branch School two days after she evacuated the New Orleans area, says, "My new teacher is nice and the playground is bigger than my old school."
Dianna Taylor, Sidney's mom, was very concerned that Sidney would have a difficult adjustment after hurricane Katrina. The school, however, is giving her daughter stability during a turbulent time, she says, adding, "I'm a single mother and this is an emotional time. I'm grateful that The Branch School opened their arms."
Although many of Louisiana's private-school students are, out of necessity, enrolling in comparable Texas institutions, many families are dismayed that their sons or daughters might not graduate from a prestigious New Orleans high school. In New Orleans, diplomas from these schools are held in high esteem. In some instances, it is an engrained family tradition to graduate from these elite schools.
Sarah Ragusa would have been a senior at one of New Orleans's most prestigious Catholic all-girls' schools, Dominican. "My senior year was supposed to be the best," she says. "I was supposed to get my ring on Friday; I was supposed to go to a dance on Friday. Now I have to find a new school. I wanted to graduate from Dominican."
Her reluctance to enroll in a Houston school is echoed by her mother, who says she had hoped her daughter would graduate from her alma mater. "I'm sure that wherever she goes will be a good school," says Jamie Ragusa, "but it won't be Dominican."
Although Gulf Coast educators are thankful that Texas is educating their students, many are asking if their former students will return to their old schools
"It's great that Texas has taken our students at a time when we can't educate them," says Carol Roberts, director of Secondary Education and Technology in Plaquemines Parish, New Orleans. "But eventually, I think, people will come back home. It's human nature to rebuild - and I think that's what will happen. In the long run, our school will be better."
Hurricane Katrina has destroyed or damaged schools in at least six Louisiana parishes and two Mississippi counties, leaving thousands of teachers wondering if they still have jobs.
Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard is not optimistic about teacher employment in heavily damaged areas. "Any teacher who is able," he says, "should apply for work in the school system in which they are taking shelter."
And if they can't find employment, the Louisiana Department of Education has notified teachers on its website that they are possibly eligible for temporary unemployment benefits.
On an Internet weblog from heavily flooded Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes, many teachers have declared that they're looking for or have found employment elsewhere.
"I have nothing to go back to," said one teacher from St. Bernard Parish. "My home was destroyed and so was my school. I am currently looking for a job in Baton Rouge."
Some parishes are still trying to pay teachers, even though school will probably not be in session for months - if at all. "We can't just cut these people off," says Carol Roberts, an administrator in Plaquemines Parish. "We're going to attempt to make payroll for as long as is financially possible."