The other NOLA students

As we approach the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there’s been a great deal of press (CNN, Newsweek) reflecting on the changes that have occurred in New Orleans, i.e. the transformations and improvements that were implemented because of the total destruction of the city and much of its infrastructure.

Recent reports, Few Studies Track Post-Katrina School Changes (EdWeek), also question how we’ll be able to learn from the changes in the education system without much of the baseline data and control groups that are often needed for rigorous evaluation. This is a valid issue and hopefully research will continue and conclusions, on the most effective practices utilized, will be drawn without control groups, with overlapping strategies on the same population, and a lack of baseline data.

While we concentrate on the strategies implemented in and around New Orleans, I wonder what’s happened to all of the students who moved away from the city and never came back (or came back a year or two later). I was in NOLA last March and spoke with several students. I asked them about their experiences during Katrina and how much school they missed. One high school student (a 17-year-old sophomore) moved to two different states (Texas and Michigan) before returning to New Orleans and missed over six months of school. She was enrolled in schools in TX and MI, but rarely attended school and felt constantly behind.

If the New Orleans schools show any improvements (which many of them do), the efforts of the RSD, school staff, and non-profits (like New Schools for New Orleans & TNTP/TeachNOLA) should be applauded. New Orleans students were behind their peers before the storm, missed months of school, and were still able to recover. There’s still a lot of work to do, but that’s outstanding and we should acknowledge those accomplishments.

I was working in an elementary school in Delaware when Katrina hit. In December, our school was still enrolling students from the storm. Without school, health or vaccination records, without any official documentation (birth certificates, permanent addresses), and often without guardians (living with friends or relatives) students were held out of school even longer. This leads me to ask, how have school systems across the country changed because of Katrina? Do districts keep better back up (electronic) files of students? Are student files transferable between school districts and states? Do “receiving” school districts have policies in place to cope with students (and get them in the classroom faster) who are displaced in such an emergency?

It’s important to remember that Katrina didn’t just impact New Orleans and school systems across the country will benefit from the promising practices coming out of the region. Nationally, we must also adjust school and district infrastructures to more efficiently enroll students who are displaced in such a disaster, and to better support both the academic and emotional needs of those students.

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