Displaced students need more resources, study finds

A comprehensive study of schoolchildren scattered by hurricanes Katrina and Rita finds students who were already performing below grade level further stressed by long absences from class and mental-health challenges. Often their new schools lacked resources to meet those needs.

Researchers are just discovering the implications of the largest displacement of students in US history. In Louisiana alone, about 200,000 children – more than one-quarter of the state's public-school students – changed schools in 2005-06, some many times.

Wednesday, a study using Louisiana data and a survey of hundreds of school principals was released by the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research group that has partnered with regional universities to inform posthurricane policies.

"The school system did a tremendous job of absorbing the displaced students," says John Pane, lead author of the study. But he raises concerns about the effects on students and school staff. "Many students missed a tremendous amount of school; under the best of circumstances, missing five weeks or more is a setback, but these children are not in the best circumstances."

Among the other findings:

•Class sizes increased in more than one-third of surveyed schools.

•Minority students were disproportionately displaced. They were 65 percent of those who had to change schools, compared with a 59 percent minority enrollment overall in the most affected parishes.

•Many schools with a high number of displaced students reported increased staffing needs that went unmet the whole year for lack of funds or qualified applicants.

•Most school principals surveyed said that student behavior hadn't changed significantly, despite the changed student body. But a substantial minority said displaced students were more likely to bully, fight, or isolate themselves in school.

Tracking the effects on academic success will take time. RAND researchers are analyzing recent test data, and they hope to expand their study into Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.

Principals did note some academic problems. In schools with a high rate of displaced students, 47 percent said those students were more likely to struggle academically. And 57 percent said they were more likely to need counseling.

Combined with the pressures of state testing, this led some principals to feel discouraged. One wrote: "We had a couple of cases where the students were so academically below, and of course this [caused] our overall, already low scores to dip even lower.... [We] are always blamed for these problems, and quite frankly, we should be applauded for our tremendous efforts."

Those efforts ranged from calling the homes of absent students to increasing counseling, tutoring, and after-school care. But with teachers and staff facing more stress and tougher job demands, many schools didn't have the resources to offer sufficient professional development.

Outside the state-run Recovery School District (RSD) in New Orleans, most schools affected by the hurricanes have stabilized, says Meg Casper, spokeswoman for Louisiana's Department of Education.

The RSD, which oversees 34 schools in New Orleans, is still seeking to fill 45 openings for teachers. In New Orleans, "we are experiencing a lot of the issues that were outlined in [the summary of] this report," says Ms. Casper, who did not have access to the full report when she spoke with the Monitor. "We're trying to assess students to see exactly where they are in their academic career, not just based on the last grade they passed but how long they've been out of school.... [And we are] trying to get more social workers in."

On a national level, the RAND report suggests the need for a national system to track students' schooling across state borders. Without such a system, RAND researchers were not able to determine how many of the more than 53,000 students no longer in state public schools had enrolled in other schools.

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