School Group Aims to Help Katrina's Youngest Victims

Katrina displaced thousands of children at the beginning of a new school year. Scott Montgomery, chief of staff for the Council of Chief State School Officers, tells Linda Wertheimer what his organization is doing to help meet educational needs.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Thousands of schoolchildren affected by Hurricane Katrina have nowhere to go next week and, most likely, for the weeks and months to come. Classrooms from Texas to Georgia to Virginia and Missouri will be adding extra desks to include these kids, but then what? And what about the teachers and students who have nowhere to go? Scott Montgomery is the chief of staff for the Council of Chief State School Officers, a non-profit that represents commissioners of education nationwide, and he joins me in the studio.

Mr. Montgomery, thank you for coming in.

Mr. SCOTT MONTGOMERY (Council of Chief State School Officers): Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now you've been working on a plan to try to help out with some of this. Are you trying to get children into schools?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: No. Our immediate need right now is to try and create some sense of normalcy for students who are either able to go to school in these areas that are hit, where they have the capacity to have school, sending supplies. Our members are very interested in sending supplies, things that normal kids would be able to take back to school in their backpacks. These kids left with nothing so now they've got...

WERTHEIMER: The No. 2 pencils and all of that.

Mr. MONTGOMERY: All of the things that they need, as well as trying to get supplies to those places where there are an influx of refugees now, where those kids have nothing.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you do for a child that can't get to school? Is there something that can be done for those kids?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: I think at this particular point, we're in the survival stage. I think that once that passes, we'll start to see people kind of moving in with relatives and other things where that becomes the norm of getting their kids back into school.

WERTHEIMER: What is this I've heard about kits, little sort of--not quite school but something that would, you know, give kids a little bit of work to do?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: Yeah. I think there are organizations here, non-profit organizations, religious organizations, that are putting together all kinds of kits that have school worksheet kind of things to distribute to kids. Still not sure how we're going to distribute those because we haven't identified who those kids are. But once we do, I think there are a number of places that are trying to get some kind of feeling of school, even if you're not in a school building.

WERTHEIMER: And that's the point of it, just to give a child a little something to do that will feel familiar?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: The familiar is probably what's most needed with a lot of these kids at this particular point in time. They want to try and stay in some kind of routine, but also to keep them engaged in a school environment of some kind because at some point, they're gonna have to jump back into that classroom situation. And this will, I think, help the students be able to make that transition whenever that occurs.

WERTHEIMER: What about schools that are gonna have to all of sudden absorb several hundred children they didn't have before?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: I imagine `school' becomes a relative term in some places. We may be doing school in houses of worship. We may be doing school in community centers. We may be doing school in lots of different places.

WERTHEIMER: What about teachers? Where do you find them? I mean, can you move those displaced teachers with the displaced children?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: Actually, I think we've heard from a number of folks who've said there are regulations that--obviously, under No Child Left Behind and some other things, where highly qualified teachers are required in classrooms--where we're going to have to relax some of those regulations for teachers as well as students as they come across the border. And, you know, if you've got 700 or 800 new kids in Georgia, that's going to require, you know, a number of new teachers as well. We're going to have to find ways to maybe waive their certification immediately or, in some ways, let them practice their craft with these kids. And I think whatever we can do to help ease those transitions will be terrifically appreciated.

WERTHEIMER: How are school districts going to absorb the costs of all these extra students?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: Yeah, I think we're gonna have to look for ways, and one of the things we want to do is work with our business partners and some of our community partners to find ways to, you know--perhaps there are ways that the textbook companies can provide textbooks to these students at a reduced or free kind of cost. But there are other, you know, basic things, like desks and chalkboards and things that you have to have. We're going to have to reach out to people and figure out ways that we can have them donate those materials as best we can to get schools back up and running.

WERTHEIMER: Is the federal government going to cough up some of this money, do you think?

Mr. MONTGOMERY: I would hope they would.

WERTHEIMER: Scott Montgomery is chief of staff for the Council of Chief State School Officers, located here in Washington.

Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. MONTGOMERY: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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