Race On to Get Young Storm Victims into School

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Federal, state and local officials are making plans to provide some sort of schooling for the more than 150,000 children from New Orleans who were displaced by the hurricane. Already there are plans to waive some regulations and testing requirements.

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Throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, more than 150,000 schoolchildren have been displaced, and that's not counting college students. Many families have made their way to neighboring states where they are now seeking food, shelter and a place where their children can go to school. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

The logistics of relocating students hundreds of miles away from their homes is what some state education officials call guesswork because no one has a fix on the true scale of the migration of families, victims of Katrina.

Mr. ABELARDO SAAVEDA (School Superintendent, Houston): We do not have any exact numbers yet. We've been asking. As a matter of fact, we're in desperate need of knowing the number so we can set up the logistics that we've been working then for the last 24 hours.

SANCHEZ: Abelardo Saaveda is Houston's school superintendent. Earlier this week, he announced that families that have been bused from New Orleans could go to schools closest to their shelter and enroll the children. If there's no room for them, Saaveda plans to reopen schools that are not use. If people keep coming, schools in other Texas cities--maybe Dallas and San Antonio--are going to have to step up.

Katrina displaced about 136,000 students from New Orleans alone. Along the six coastal counties hardest hit in Mississippi, another 35,000 students have been displaced. State officials there say that half of the schools in these counties are gone, literally blown away. Throughout Mississippi and the New Orleans area especially, it's safe to assume that many school districts will be shut down for months, if not for the rest of the school year. Father north, cities like Memphis have had to open their school doors.

Ms. PEGGY JONES (Memphis Hurricane Hotline Operator): We have been inundated with calls and we are trying to help these kids get enrolled and trying to gather school supplies and school uniforms for them.

SANCHEZ: That's Peggy Jones, who's handling calls to a hotline that Memphis city officials have set up for the 12,000 people who have arrived since last Sunday. Regardless of where they end up, displaced families are being asked to show that they're from Louisiana, Mississippi or Alabama before their children can enroll in school. Again, Houston school superintendent Abelardo Saaveda.

Mr. SAAVEDA: We would need some kind of ID and reference to--as far as a parent having an ID. We need to know who these young people are.

SANCHEZ: Otherwise, says Saaveda, it'll be mayhem.

Displaced parents and children will for now qualify for homeless status under federal law. This will allow students to enroll in any public school that has room for them for 30 days. But Saaveda wants the US Education Department to extend that indefinitely and to relax or waive certain federal regulations, like the one that says that homeless children can't be placed in separate schools.

Mr. SAAVEDA: Well, the schools around the Astrodome don't have the capacity to take all these kids, and that's why I'm going to have to put them in separate schools. I need for the federal government to relax that rule that pertains to not segregating these kids.

Secretary MARGARET SPELLINGS (Department of Education): Those are the sorts of things that, yeah, we're clearly open-minded about.

SANCHEZ: US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. She has vowed to cut the red tape to register children across state lines and maybe even provide some money.

Sec. SPELLINGS: There are $62 1/2 million worth of homeless funds. Those, obviously, are not adequate. The homeless statute was not written with a situation or order of magnitude like this in mind.

SANCHEZ: The other big area in which the Department of Education says it cannot help is rebuilding school facilities destroyed by Katrina. The department has a special fund for school construction and renovation, but it's miniscule. There's only $1 million in that fund. If there is money for rebuilding schools, it'll have to come from FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

What Spellings says she's less inclined to do is suspend federal regulations under No Child Left Behind requiring schools to show that children are making academic progress, even if they've been displaced.

Sec. SPELLINGS: We don't want to write off this school year academically for these kids, and shouldn't, at least yet.

SANCHEZ: Next week, Spellings will meet with education organizations to discuss the long-term needs. Right now government officials can only guess where families with children are, where they'll find refuge or what schools will be able to take them in. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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