An anticipated exodus of Houston students to public schools in other big cities — Dallas and Austin — has so far not occurred. As of Monday morning, the Dallas Independent School District said it had enrolled 220 evacuated children. It appeared that although many Houston families remained out of their swamped homes, they were lodging with friends and relatives across the Houston region.
“To be online two weeks after Harvey hit is just amazing,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
Still, big challenges remain. Nine campuses with the worst damage will be moved to vacant properties or will share space with other schools. By this week, some buildings were still being assessed for safety — leaving thousands of parents unsure when their children would be back in a classroom, or where that classroom might be. And 270 teachers have been unable to go to work because of damage to their own homes or other disruptions after the storm, school officials said.
School officials have distributed thousands of free uniforms to families who lost school supplies in damaged homes, and announced that all students would receive three free meals a day for the duration of the school year, regardless of family income. Richard A. Carranza, the Houston schools superintendent, who formerly led the San Francisco school system, secured a $1 million donation for recovery efforts from Marc Benioff, a Silicon Valley philanthropist and the founder of Salesforce.com.
Monday looked in many ways like any other first day in Houston: Crossing guards stood on the corners, parents hugged their children, students chatted with friends and found their names on class assignment lists.
At Wheatley, a high school that is northeast of downtown Houston, the principal, Shirley A. Rose-Gilliam, greeted upperclassmen by name and directed traffic in the halls. She said she had been unsure how many students to expect. In the end, she was relieved. More students were at school on Monday, she said, than on any first day in her four-year tenure here.
A drop-off in enrollment could have led to a decrease in state funding and potential reassignment for teachers at a time when the school is already under scrutiny. Wheatley, whose student body is about half Hispanic, half African-American and 70 percent low-income, is in its sixth year with “improvement required” status. If test scores and graduation rates do not go up, the school could be shut down by the state.
“We’re working to get the scores where they need to get to, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily about scores,” Dr. Rose-Gilliam said. She said she was encouraging teachers to discuss the flooding in their classes, and urged her staff to help displaced students access counseling, clothing and even toiletries.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, most New Orleans public schools remained closed for more than four months. The State of Louisiana took over most New Orleans public schools, instituting changes that created the nation’s first so-called “portfolio” school district, in which the majority of schools are independently managed charter schools. Gains in test scores and the high school graduation rate followed, yet the overhaul started a fierce, ongoing debate about how to balance education reform efforts with community control of schools. Thousands of experienced African-American educators with deep roots in New Orleans were replaced by a movement of largely young, white teachers from outside.
Observers of education policy have wondered if Houston could face similar shifts. Like Louisiana in the years before Hurricane Katrina, Texas passed a law in 2015 that made it easier for the state to take over schools and districts with persistently low test scores. Ten Houston schools, including Wheatley, fall into that category, which means this school year would have been a politically challenging one for Mr. Carranza, the superintendent, even without Harvey.
But the Houston public schools of 2017 are more resilient than New Orleans public schools were in 2005 — both physically and educationally. Construction in Houston is decades newer, making school buildings easier to refurbish. And while New Orleans schools were considered some of the worst in the nation in 2005, with a corrupt bureaucracy and dismal test scores, Houston’s academic performance is about average among urban school districts, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The region has been a capital of education reform efforts for a quarter century. A fifth of public school students already attend independently managed charter schools. The nation’s largest charter network, KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, was founded in Houston in 1994, while Teach for America has had a presence in the city since 1991.
Mike Feinberg, a founder of KIPP and a board member of KIPP Houston, suggested the network could partner with the district to take over some of its underperforming schools as it has in some other districts. Officials from the Houston Independent School District could not be reached late Monday to respond to the suggestion. KIPP serves 14,000 students in the region, and all 28 of its buildings were back up and running as of Sept. 7. The network has 11,000, mostly low-income students on waiting lists for admission, Mr. Feinberg said.
In an interview shortly after the storm, Mr. Carranza sketched his own vision for reforming schools on the state watch list, including Wheatley, which he said wrestle with issues like intergenerational poverty and homelessness. Mr. Carranza said those schools will receive extra money to improve professional development and provide children with social services like counseling. The storm, he said, will make the need for counseling even more pronounced.
Already, people at Wheatley were sharing their stories of the storm. Carolyn Jackson, the school nurse, was rescued from knee-deep floodwaters by a military truck and spent two days at a makeshift shelter inside a furniture store. She was only able to salvage a single backpack full of belongings from her home, plus some clothes and her inhaler.
“Everything else was gone,” Ms. Jackson said.
Ms. Jackson said she expected traumatized students to venture into her office in the days ahead, and would be ready with empathy that only someone else who had been through it might be able to provide: “I’ll say, ‘Well, I waded in the water, too.’”
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