Educating the Uprooted

Supporting children displaced from Hurricane Katrina teaches more lessons in disaster response.

by / August 27, 2007

After Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and effectively shut down the city, Korbin Johnson, a resident and local teacher, was one of the thousands of evacuees with no home to return to.

After traveling to New Mexico to stay with family, he received a call from a friend in Houston telling him that students from Johnson's former school were found at the Houston Astrodome evacuation area.

Johnson flew to Houston along with Gary Robichaux and other staff from the Louisiana office of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) - a national open-enrollment charter system for college-bound kids - to find the students.

"I flew out to see what we could do," Johnson said. "We weren't expecting to be there long term but when we arrived, we realized we could serve a need."

After meeting families at the shelters whose children were not attending any schools, Robichaux called Mike Feinberg, KIPP co-founder, and said he wanted to help create a KIPP school for the children uprooted by the hurricane.

"We recruited kids straight out of shelters," Johnson said. "We got fliers, cell phones and contact information, and brought it back to school and put it together as a roster."


Sense of Normalcy
In October 2005, New Orleans West (NOW) College Preparatory Academy at Douglass Elementary - the only school for Katrina evacuees in Houston - officially opened as a joint project of the Houston Independent School District, KIPP and Teach for America, which is a nonprofit organization trying to narrow the academic gap between children of different socioeconomic backgrounds. Its initial goal was to operate for one year to educate children transplanted by Katrina.

Housed at a former Houston elementary school that was closed after declining enrollment, the school had an initial enrollment of 500 children taught by 37 first-year teachers, also expelled from New Orleans. Johnson became NOW's vice principal and Robichaux, also displaced by Katrina, was the school's principal. 

In addition to providing education for children whose schools were closed or ruined, NOW provided some stability to children traumatized by the hurricane.

"I think the most important thing we offered to our students was getting back some sense of normalcy and getting back to a sense of routine," Johnson said. "In particular, when children are overcoming a traumatic event, they need a routine, and school is that."

To help children overcome the effects of the ordeal they've endured, NOW partnered with numerous organizations that provided help, including a group of psychology students from Tulane University in New Orleans, the Houston-Galveston Area Council, Milton Hershey School and Houston Texans football players.

The school offered support groups of parents and teachers where students could express their feelings, art therapy, group counseling and posttraumatic stress disorder studies. Eighty-page workbooks with drawing and writing exercises at the school were designed to give children and adults the opportunity to express their feelings through words and pictures, and a video program was available for students to create documentary films about their experiences after Katrina.


Sense of Security
KIPP students spend more time learning, following a rigorous curriculum, attending classes on Saturdays and adhering to strict behavior policies.

In addition to a structured learning environment and a sense of safety and security, Johnson noted that having teachers who shared their experiences was a big help for the students. After Hurricane Katrina, Johnson's sense of security was washed away along with his home, job and means to provide for his family. He could relate, he said, to how important a sense of security is. 

"Making sure kids feel safe is the No. 1 need," he said. "I understood how important it is for people to feel safe and secure. Without that,

you can't teach and learn. If somebody feels like they are in danger, it impedes every other process."

And becoming homeless is the worst thing that can happen to a child, said Michael Supes, acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless. 

"It's very difficult for an adult to be homeless," he said, "but for a child to experience homelessness at the same time is very traumatic." 

Yet NOW provided a sense of order when all structure from students' previous living environments had collapsed.

"All children who are displaced, particularly after a disaster, need structure," said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "School is a place of structure and stability when everything else has been turned upside down. It's very important psychologically, emotionally, socially. To be supported in school helps them to stabilize and normalize, and to minimize the disruption that happens in a disaster. It's very important for children's mental health."

Children displaced during disasters are technically considered homeless, and thus incur the same rights as homeless children.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, landmark homeless legislation passed in 1986, among many things addresses the rights of homeless children, allowing them to attend school in the district in which they live during their displacement.

In Katrina's aftermath, when Houston schools struggled to find space for the estimated 55,000 children who fled to Houston, the McKinney-Vento Act was an effective protocol for area schools, Duffield said.

Under the act, transplanted or homeless children should immediately enroll in the district where they reside, with or without proof of birth certificates, school records, immunization records, proof of guardianship or proof of residency. Also under the act, schools are required to enroll students with new student files based on information from parents and students. Displaced and homeless students are also automatically eligible for school meals without completing forms or displaying proof of income eligibility.

Nearly half the students who attended NOW in Houston moved back to New Orleans, causing the charter school to close on May 31 - at the end of the 2007 school year - after two years of serving children forced out by Hurricane Katrina.

Johnson, who had become principal of NOW last year, will return to New Orleans to start a new school, and he's hoping to rebuild and operate out of his former school building, which was damaged heavily during the hurricane.

"Although the emergency part of the situation is over, there's so much to do," Johnson said. "The other side of this is that folks are really having a hard time emotionally, even though we made it through the rough part of the storm."

Chandler Harris Contributing Writer