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The United States had experienced its worst natural disaster in history during the summer of 2005, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. The storm managed to claim nearly 2,000 lives and ruined more than 800,000 homes (Liriel, 2006). Early estimates indicate that the catastrophe caused more than 100 billion dollars' worth of damage, flooding the entire city of New Orleans in the process. Never in the history of the U.S. had the country experienced an emergency migration like the one required by Hurricane Katrina. Residents were left with no other option but to start over elsewhere, most of them left with nothing to call their own. One of the most vulnerable groups dispersed from the storm were children, nearly 400,000 displaced students in total (Pace, 2005). Within less than a week, these kids were left with the burden of having to relocate in the midst of crisis, many of them without shelter or food.
Though hundreds of cities across the country assisted with citizens left homeless, Houston, Texas was now considered home to thousands of those who were displaced. Roughly 25,000 students who were victimized by the storm had enrolled in Houston-area schools directly afterwards (Radcliffe, 2006d). Never before had any city absorbed that many new students in such a short period of time, leaving Houston schools with the unprecedented responsibility of having to successfully provide services to a traumatized group of kids. Combining the extraordinary dedication put forward by academic agencies with the pivotal assistance of the public school system, the city of Houston put forward an incredible amount of effort into assisting the uprooted students.
The victims of Hurricane Katrina were at a disadvantage before the weather turned deadly. Most of the students displaced by the storm, many of them from New Orleans, had earned some of the worst test scores in the country. Not only were these people now burdened by devastation, but lacked the same quality of education as those from other school systems they were relocating to. With the help of agencies and programs such as Teach For America (TFA), Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP), and the Houston Independent School District (HISD), displaced students were provided with some of the highest quality education sources available in the country (Harris, 2007).
Though more than half of the people displaced by Hurricane Katrina that moved to Houston have since relocated, thousands still call it home; and for those that have moved on, the impact of the education they received in Houston still remains. For those that have decided to go back to New Orleans, the efforts to improve education have traveled with them. From overnight increases in class size to old schools reopening, the abilities of the Houston education system were put to the challenge when called upon. Looking ahead to the upcoming pages, this report submits an in-depth analysis of the contributing factors that salvaged academic values amongst those who were most affected by the storm and how the city of Houston was able to help thousands of people in the process.
One of the most significant accomplishments for the city of Houston amongst the numerous challenges presented was the opening of Douglas Elementary School. The school had previously been closed due to a lack of enrollment, but the Houston Independent School District (HISD) agreed to lease the school and the KIPP staffed it with TFA Corps members and alumni members. Many of the teachers representing the TFA had been displaced by the storm themselves. Up until Hurricane Katrina, Danyell Schulze had taught 6th grade in New Orleans, only to find herself in Houston after the storm. Within less than a week, she was teaching 4th graders housed at evacuation centers at Douglas Elementary. "I think it's important that I've been there for them," Schulze said. "That they have someone that understands their situation, who sounds like them and has their accent. It's all about relating" (Pace, 2005, 1).
The school had officially become KIPP NOW or KIPP New Orleans West. The school was filled entirely with displaced children from the storm, allowing the school to target the needs of everyone involved. In just a short period of time, attendance ballooned to more than 400 students. After Hurricane Katrina swept through, Walnut Bend Elementary watched its enrollment increase by 23 percent with the addition of 184 Louisiana children (Spencer, 2005). Directly next to Walnut Bend is Revere Middle School, which has 137 Louisiana students registered, more than any other middle school in the region (Spencer, 2005). With thousands of displaced students in the Houston-area alone, schools from every district were faced with one challenge after another.
Months after the assault brought upon by the hurricane, children were still feeling the effects of the trauma. Scared to leave their parents, these children suffered from bouts with depression, anger, fear, and instability. Ken Estrella, principal of HISD's Paul Revere Middle School, said displaced children at his school still hadn't fully adjusted nearly a full year later. Because many still wanted to return to their homes or were emotionally scarred by the hurricane, the school was having trouble with attendance and behavior issues (Radcliffe, 2006b). In art therapy, many students were seen drawing pictures of corpses, flooded homes, lost pets, and people escaping in boats and cars. "Kids who have been doing beautifully were struggling all of a sudden," said James Cheeky, coordinator of counseling and drug free schools for the district. "School has been their safe place, their one constant" (Friedberg, 2006, p3). Most of the schools with victims from the hurricane added weekly support groups, offered additional assistance with homework, and added more social workers to the list of services and help already provided. Eighty page workbooks with writing and drawing exercises given at some of the schools were intended to give children and adults the opportunity to describe their emotions through pictures and words. In addition, there were video program activities set up for students to create documentary films about their personal experiences after Hurricane Katrina as well. There was an incredibly high amount of pressure for the schools to find creative ways to help those that were suffering emotionally. The National Association of School Psychologists stated that schools played a very important role in helping young Katrina victims cope with the disaster (Hunter, 2005).
In the beginning, students from Louisiana had to deal with being teased and were ridiculed for their accents. Within a short period of time however, strangers became acquaintances and the cultural divide began to close. Inter-dating and friendships signified new beginnings. "After about a week they wanted to be my friend," said Elsik High School senior Royce Williams who previously attended St. Augustin in New Orleans before coming to Houston (Friedberg, 2006, 1). Though most disputes were few and far between, some were serious enough to gain national attention. Initial policies requiring special wristbands and separate classes for Louisiana students widened the divide between locals and newcomers, leading to a brawl at Jones High School in December of 2005. The fight led to 27 arrests, highlighting the severity of the confrontation between the students. Following the altercation, Superintendent Abelardo Saaverda announced that he had increased police presence at the schools by ten percent in an effort to prevent any more incidents from occurring (Kennett, 2006).
With all of the problems that the children had been facing in and out of the classroom, it was expected that they would run into a number of issues that would interfere with their education. Long before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans, the public school system was plagued with financial mismanagement, publicized corruption, excessively low test scores, and high dropout rates. Students had struggled with discipline in New Orleans schools as well. A majority of students from New Orleans schools come from homes stricken by poverty, had only one or no parents in their lives, or were conceived by ill prepared teenage parents. Many of these disadvantaged students had often refused to complete schoolwork, attend class, or follow directions. Following the hurricane, the children were faced with huge problems and had a limited skill-set to help themselves. Many students faced emotional challenges, from losing all of their possessions to not knowing how to locate their parents. For others, the struggle was adjusting to the differences between Houston and New Orleans schools. 94 percent of students in the HISD speak Spanish, a dramatic difference from the New Orleans Public Schools system (Visit, 2010). Not only are Houston-area schools more ethnically diverse, but they are much larger in size as well. In addition, the academic standards and requirements for education are far more demanding, which left many seniors concerned about graduating. In order to further increase the likelihood for success, added effort had to be put forward to catch up students who were drastically behind (Radcliffe 2006a).
Houston-area educators were scrambling to create additional programs, such as remedial classes and after-school tutoring to further ensure students did better on Texas' standardized tests. They had enlisted anyone willing and able to help, from Grandparents to academic specialists, in an effort to help minimize academic achievement shortcomings experienced by students; some students were one and two years behind (Radcliffe, 2006b). In order to better prepare struggling students, Alief Independent School District (AISD) worked with nonprofit area groups to form a summer day camp to help displaced students make improvements with their subpar math and reading skills. Alief officials had purchased additional books and computer programs as well (Radcliffe, 2006c).
The additional efforts were more than needed. More than 60% of HISD third-,fifth-, and ninth-graders scored higher than the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test in 2004-2005, while less than one-third of the students from New Orleans Public Schools in the same grades beat national averages on the similar Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 2003-2004 (Radcliffe, 2006b). Houston teachers were stunned to find out that there were students in the first grade who were unable to identify the alphabet and fifth-graders who were incapable of making verbs and nouns agree. In the Spring of 2006, scores from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) identified significant differences between students from Louisiana and Texas. Less than 25 percent of displaced students in the 11th grade had passed Texas' exit-level exam; more than 60 percent of the other 11th-graders had passed successfully (Radcliffe, 2006d). Roughly 700 of the 2,900 Katrina students that returned to the HISD in 2006 had to be held back. "These kids have worked very hard, but many of them were not prepared for the rigorous Texas standards," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott said (Radcliffe, 2006d, p1). Since the HISD is the largest school system in Texas and the 7th largest in the United States, academic requirements are stiffer. However, the data are still considered inconclusive. Because curricula can vary dramatically from one state to another, the TAKS may have included subjects that students displaced from the hurricane had not been taught; they may have covered other areas that Texas students had yet to cover. Since most of the Louisiana schools were unable to send the students' records to other schools, it was impossible to track their academic history or placement level (Radcliffe 2006c).
Hundreds of students missed their senior proms while hundreds of others lost sight of their athletic hopes. From Post Traumatic Stress Disorders to bouts with severe depression, displaced students were faced with challenges most never would have imagined. Though nothing could turn things back the way they were before the hurricane, the education system throughout Houston tried its hardest to provide the students with every opportunity to move forward. "We were worriedâ€¦ we didn't feel prepared. The district was struggling and scrambling in the beginning," said Barbara Thornhill, HISD's west region superintendent. "I saw the work being done though; the outcome was hardly a bump" (Radcliffe, 2009, p1).
Despite the growing list of obstacles, the city of Houston put forward an extremely aggressive campaign to go above and beyond to help displaced Katrina students. Even with the objections of the teachers' union, the HISD voted to implement a sweeping merit-pay system for teachers (Gelinas, 2006). In addition to the HISD, teachers from TFA were also paid generously. Historically, TFA teachers have primarily educated students from disadvantaged neighborhoods and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina called for teachers with such experience. Their effort was considered a huge success, as the number of TFA teachers in Houston has dramatically increased since 2005. In the fall of 2009, TFA placed 250 new teachers in the city of Houston, bringing the total to 450 teachers representing the unique charter program (HISD, 2009). TFA now recruits on nearly 500 college campuses nationwide, hiring recent graduates and seniors from all academic majors who have displayed leadership, outstanding achievement, and perseverance. Nearly 600 TFA alumni call the Houston area home, including Natasha Kamrani, the first vice president on the HISD Board of Education (HISD, 2009).
The impact of the TFA throughout the natural disaster is difficult to measure. Looking beyond the direct involvement, their influence was evident in other avenues as well. After completing their commitment to TFA in 1995, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin founded the KIPP. Starting as a program for fifth-grade public school students in inner-city Houston, the program has grown to nationwide coverage. KIPP currently has 66 schools in 19 states, each specializing in the needs of poverty-laden communities. Many students who begin KIPP in the fifth grade are at least one or two grade levels behind their peers in math and reading. According to data that was collected in 2008, after four years at KIPP, more than 90 percent of eighth-graders had scored above district averages in reading and English, and 100% of eighth-graders in the KIPP had outperformed their district average in mathematics (KIPP, 2010). Though KIPP chooses not to analyze each school's standardized test scores to determine whether or not it exceeds the standard deviation, they do assess overall numbers to see if the results are statistically significant (KIPP, 2010).
Though New Orleans schools had some of the worst test scores in the country and their students were drastically behind the norm, the hurricane relocated thousands of them to a higher education. Displaced students that migrated to the city of Houston were embraced with new opportunities through education; despite losing everything they had, Houston schools provided them with life-long tools to rebuild with. "Typically, only about 7% of students from low-income families graduate from college: KIPP's rate so far has been over 90%," said Elliott Witney, head of the academy (Economist, 2009, p5).
In addition to the enormous list of volunteers, school systems, and private institutions, the Federal Government supported the cause by helping out with financial aid. On January 18, 2006, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings announced that an additional 30 million in education funds that accumulated from unspent federal financial aid would be added to the 200 million dollars appropriated by Congress for the Hurricane Education Recovery Act (U.S. Department, 2006). Though the Federal Government had provided schools across the country with more than one billion dollars in hurricane relief funds overall, only 35.2 million was sent to the state of Texas to cover the costs of educating 46,000 students displaced by the storm. Between federal funding shortfalls and Texas' plan to use relief funds to refill state coffers, Houston-area schools were left responsible for the bill of educating their share of the evacuees (Radcliffe, 2006a).
Due to reimbursements from 2005 deficits, the Houston school districts were left with most of the financial burden brought on by the 2006 budget. Spokesman for Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Chris Paulitz, said, "There is no overwhelming desire for people not from Texas to reimburse Texas. What they're not looking at is the sheer fact that our state's population went up 3% overnight" (Liriel, 2006, p2). Between July 1, 2006, and July 1, 2007, Houston led the nation's cities in numerical increase during that period, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (U.S. Census, 2008). Never in the history of the United States had that many people relocated in such a short period of time. Being able to account for all of the financial requirements that the storm initiated was impossible.
Before the storm had forced thousands of displaced victims into Houston during the summer of 2005, the city had already experienced significant growth from 1990 to 2000. The population of metropolitan Houston had increased by more than 25 percent. More than half of the new Houstonians were Hispanic, raising the total of Houston residents with Hispanic heritage to 33 percent (Visit, 2010). Considering that most of the people that fled New Orleans were of African American decent, the city became an even bigger cultural melting pot than what it had already been. No single racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority of the Houston-area's population totals (Visit, 2010).
Houston not only provided diversity for Katrina Victims, but geographic convenience as well. While more than half of New Orleans is below sea level, Houston sits perched 43 feet above; the high ground proved to be much safer than the flooded lowlands along the Gulf border. In addition, the distance from Houston to New Orleans is only 350 miles; a straight shot down Interstate 10. Though other major cities are within similar distance, Houston's overall size offered ample space and opportunity for those who were displaced. Houston's metropolitan area hosts more than 5.5 million residents, while the city holds more than 2.1 million by itself. The metropolitan area covers 8,778 square miles, an area larger than the state of New Jersey (City, 2010).
Though the city of Houston provided opportunity to thousands of Katrina victims, it was a difficult life-changing experience for everyone involved. Even though several years have passed since Hurricane Katrina swept through, the memories are still fresh on the minds of the victims and their family members. Despite all of the heartache, displaced students will always be able to share their unique experience of switching to a different school at the same time as thousands of others during historical peril. In unprecedented fashion, the city of Houston was faced with the challenge of not only enrolling the displaced students, but helping them excel as well. The storm provided an unmatched natural experiment; an opportunity to see what happens when both high and low achieving students are added to pre-existing groups due to a natural disaster and how a city could manage to do it effectively.