• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., • IDRA Newsletter • January 2006 • Josie Cortez

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast states with unprecedented fury, making it the worst natural disaster this country has ever seen. A few weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit Texas. Tens of thousands of people were left homeless and evacuated to nearby states. Hospitals and schools were in shambles, some never to re-open. This tragedy mobilized individuals and institutions from around the country and the world, wanting to help.

A few months later, it still is not business as usual for the Gulf Coast states, but there is hope and much work underway to reclaim what was lost. Some of that work is focused on the most vulnerable – the children. Thousands have been displaced in new schools where nothing is familiar. How do schools best serve these students?

To begin to answer this question, the Intercultural Development Research Association brought together leadership from the hurricane-stricken Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas in September 2005 to identify issues, create solutions and identify resource needs for schools with displaced children.

This summary highlights the unprecedented dialogue and is intended to inform decision-makers as they work in the best interest of children.

“All of us have particular roles and responsibilities in the institutions and organizations that we are a part of, and sometimes those roles require of us some looking at very specific things like rules, regulations, and what will be of NCLB,” stated Dr. María Robledo Montecel, IDRA executive director. “I think the way to get through that and to find solutions that will work is to come back always to what is good for our kids in times like these.”

Participants and Issues

Educators came from Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas to work on this issue, some of them having lost their own homes. Joining school principals, state education agency administrators, researchers, and community liaisons was Darla Marburger, deputy assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Department of Education.

Issues in four primary areas were discussed by the participants:

  • State testing, assessment and diagnosis;
  • Instruction, curriculum and teaching quality;
  • Record-keeping; and
  • Parent and community involvement.

Following is what emerged. A list of resources is available. Also, a CD-ROM is available from IDRA with more information.

State Testing, Assessment and Diagnosis

“We need to make sure that these students count, that they are assessed, that they are instructed, that they get every single service and any other benefit that every student in those schools receives,” stated Ms. Marburger. “We have to make sure that education does not become another casualty of the storm.”

Issues Raised

  • The lack of curriculum and testing alignment across states, particularly for high-stakes testing and standards. Graduation assessments – Are seniors going to be able to graduate in other states?
  • The lack of available records, especially, for special education students. As an example, all students in Louisiana are assessed but some documentation is not available for placement decisions.
  • There are not enough counselors to deal with trauma and missing parents.
  • There is a shortage of personnel and monies to hire staff, purchase materials, etc.
  • Students’ high mobility – students may have moved from New Orleans to Houston, began school in Houston and have been moved suddenly to another state.
  • The uneven distribution of displaced students across school districts.

Solutions Offered

  • The immediate solution to issues of assessment and diagnosis is for the receiving school to assess, diagnose and place students to begin intervention immediately.
  • Schools should also listen to parents. If parents say their children are third grade students or were in a special program, then that is where they should be placed.
  • States can and should take advantage of flexibility. There is a letter from the U.S. Department of Education to the Council of Chief State School Officers that allows states to delay provisions in the law, e.g., that not meeting adequate yearly progress (AYP) can have consequences delayed for states receiving large infusions of displaced students.
  • States can create a subgroup of “displaced” students for analyses. They would still count for determining AYP, in an effort to be accountable for all students. Schools will be able to show growth as well.
  • States can also work toward greater alignment, uniform recording and assessment across state systems (similar to the migrant education system).
  • Schools should access experts for support, including staff development with teachers and counselors (targeted support) and should access available resources and services such as the American Red Cross and mental health services, and teachers and counselors who are out of work.
  • Social workers can help coordinate these services. Most importantly, schools must provide stability and predictability for children.
  • Federal monies will be available to school districts (local education agencies in Texas; state education agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi) on quarterly basis.

Resource Needs Identified

  • Someone is needed to facilitate access to student databases across states that are password-protected but available to state education agencies.
  • Identifying, accessing and coordinating resource needs (e.g., skilled diagnosticians).

Instruction, Curriculum and Teaching Quality

Ms. Marburger stated: “I heard stories that were heart wrenching. For example, in the Dallas area there was a little girl who was leaving her classroom to go to a school assembly. She was a kindergarten student, and her class had filed into the hallway and she had followed them into the hallway. She ran back into the classroom to grab her backpack and lunch box. Her teacher said: ‘Oh, that’s okay, Hon. You can leave those there. They’ll be there when we get back.’ She looked at her teacher and said, ‘You just can’t count on that anymore.’”

Issues Raised

  • Can the student-teacher ratio be waived in receiving schools?
  • Will displaced students need to take the state-mandated tests, such as the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)?
  • Can a national normed test be used instead of the state assessment?
  • How can certification of evacuee teachers be determined? Can emergency certification for teachers be extended?
  • What do displaced students need to know and be able to do, as it relates to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS)?
  • How do parents and communities keep informed of what is happening in schools?
  • A side-by-side comparison of graduation requirements by state is needed in order to see and address the different credit requirements. The greatest concern is with 11th and 12th grade students.
  • How prepared are teachers to help students cope with trauma, poverty, diversity, perceptions and misperceptions?
  • If students move from public school to private school or vice versa, it may be difficult to access student records.

Solutions Offered

  • Place students in their home-state curriculum.
  • Establish reciprocity between states.
  • Enter courses into a database for each state to review to make appropriate determination.
  • Provide cross-cultural communication training that celebrates diversity and builds on uniqueness, strengths, high expectations, opportunity and achievement.
  • Hire the many displaced teachers looking for work.


Ronald Love, special assistant for state schools and special projects at the Mississippi State Department of Education, stated: “We’re doing everything we can do to get schools operational. By the middle of October, even in those towns where you saw nothing but sticks, if there’s a school, we’re working real hard to try to get them back up. We’re doing everything in our power to get the feeling of normal, everyday, regular, communities healing… The state department of education has been going through a personality change. We’re working real hard to try to make that personality one of assistance, of encouraging, of resource building… We’re trying to be a positive force in that whole process.”

Issues Raised

  • It is difficult to track students (school-to-school and district-to-district), especially placement of special education and other students relying solely on parents for information.
  • No private schools in Louisiana have common records. Every private school kept its own records, and half of all Louisiana students were enrolled in private schools.
  • What are the requirements for recordkeeping and accountability as it relates to Texas?
  • How do schools access the information needed for proper grade placement in order for students to benefit from best practices?
  • Discrepancies between districts on student enrollment and grade-level data results in placing students according to age and self reports.
  • Do seniors receive diplomas from the receiving school or the sending school?
  • Who can have access to student data while ensuring confidentiality, and how do we make sure Texas knows how Louisiana schools operated?
  • What are the responsibilities of the sending school and the receiving school?
  • Have graduation plans for seniors matched diplomas (are they the same or different)? Do the programs across states match?
  • How do schools manage the immediate needs of special education students; every special education student needs to have a review.
  • Information can get bottlenecked. There need to be better ways to get information and ensure confidentially.

Solutions Offered

  • The first school (defined as the home school) that the student is enrolled in is responsible for the records.
  • Make a request (governor to governor) to gain access to student data and establish a “SWAT” team who has experience transferring data from state to state.
  • Establish a special department at the Texas Education Agency staffed by Louisiana staff to help Texas access student records.
  • Examine past practices following disasters and see how student records were maintained and accessed.

Resource Needs

  • Texas needs to create a record system that becomes a central repository for all displaced students (similar to the Texas PEIMS).
  • There needs to be an articulation agreement between state departments to facilitate data access.
  • Districts need an explanation of “homeless” to understand what that means for students and their families.
  • The federal government needs to provide funds to school districts to support students who are homeless, in special education, in Carl Perkins, etc. Also needed are federal funds to support Louisiana staff who are housed at the Texas Education Agency to help with data retrieval and management.

Parent and Community Involvement

Maria Ferrier, executive director of external funding and grants for the Southwest Independent School District in San Antonio stated: “We’re here to listen to you, to work hand-in-hand with you, for what we can do for those children as individuals and what they’re going through. To get them to the place where they can concentrate on reading and where they can concentrate on math and science. So as we work together, we will be asking you for your advice about your children and what we can do to make them our children.”

Issues Raised

  • Students coming from one community into another community where everything and everyone is different from what they have known.
  • How to help students become engaged in the learning process in their new community.
  • Finding district resources to work with the incoming population.
  • Finding a way to embrace the new student population and integrate students into the school.
  • Assessing the immediate impact in receiving the new students.
  • Concerns of low expectations for incoming students.
  • Stereotyping of ethnic groups, cross-cultural clashes and breakouts of violence because of intolerance.
  • Student mobility and the unpredictability students and families face moving from one city and school to another.

Solutions Offered

  • Provide quick orientation for staff.
  • Orient new families and students.
  • Maintain high expectations for all students.
  • Secure funding at the campus level and distribute resources and funds appropriately.
  • Tap community resources, such as the American Red Cross.
  • Provide competent bilingual staff.
  • Teach tolerance in all settings.

IDRA’s commitment to making schools work for all children continues through the Seven-State ArtReach Symposium being held in February 2006 in Little Rock. The IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity (the equity assistance center that serves Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas) is working with the Arkansas’ Governor’s Office and the Arkansas State Department of Education to use the lessons learned from the Gulf Coast states educators meeting in San Antonio and help the thousands of displaced school children from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Invited state representatives from the governors’ offices of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas and will join with representatives from the Chief State School Officers, departments of education, state homeless education coordinators, and others to address critical issues, find solutions and identify resources.

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is design and development coordinator at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2006, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2006 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]