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Across Nation, Storm Victims Crowd Schools

Ohanian Comment: It is hard to see how Spellings can stubbornly hold the line on "standards." Where are the standards of compassion and caring>

By Sam Dillon

School districts from Maine to Washington State were enrolling thousands of students from New Orleans and other devastated Gulf Coast districts yesterday in what experts said could become the largest student resettlement in the nation's history.

Schools welcoming the displaced students must not only provide classrooms, teachers and textbooks, but under the terms of President Bush's education law must also almost immediately begin to raise their scholastic achievement unless some provisions of that law are waived.

Historians said that those twin challenges surpassed anything that public education had experienced since its creation after the Civil War, including disasters that devastated whole school districts, like the San Francisco earthquake and the Chicago fire.

"In terms of school systems absorbing kids whose lives and homes have been shattered, what we're going to watch over the next weeks is unprecedented in American education," said Jeffrey Mirel, a professor of history and education at the University of Michigan.

The vast resettlement was already under way last week, with schools in Baton Rouge, La., Houston and other cities near the Gulf Coast enrolling some students. Yesterday, officials in cities including San Antonio; Phoenix; Olympia, Wash.; Freeport, Me.; Memphis; Washington; Las Vegas; Salt Lake City; Chicago; Detroit; and Philadelphia reported enrolling students or preparing for their arrival.

The total number of displaced students is not yet known, but it appears to be well above 200,000. In Louisiana, 135,000 public school students and 52,000 private school students have been displaced from Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes.

President Bush, speaking with reporters at the White House yesterday, thanked the nation's educators "for reaching out and doing their duty," and he said that Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings was working on a plan to help states absorb the educational costs but gave no hint of what kind of assistance might be provided. The Department of Education set up a Web site to coordinate private donations to schools enrolling displaced students.

"They said we could brace for about 500 kids," said Sue Steele, coordinator of homeless student programs for the public schools in Wichita, where buses carrying 1,800 storm victims were expected to arrive yesterday, part of some 7,000 headed for Kansas.

Many students were concentrated in districts along an arc from the Florida Panhandle west through Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas.

The Santa Rosa County School District in the Florida Panhandle has enrolled 137 students, said Carol Calfee, a district official.

"And we still have folks coming in," she said. "They're walking through the door and some of them just have nothing, so it's really hard." The local United Way has said it will try to buy school supplies for every displaced student, she said.

The crisis poses new challenges for Ms. Spellings, including financial. The Department of Education's budget this year for homeless student programs is about $61 million, which she said was insufficient.

Ms. Spellings, who has spent her first months in office fighting a backlash by local educators and state lawmakers against the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, is also hearing calls from advocacy groups that she take emergency measures that could be controversial.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, asked her on Friday to waive the accountability provisions of the law for schools in the hurricane's path as well as in Texas and other states receiving large numbers of students, a move Ms. Spellings said she was reluctant to take.

Private companies that operate online courses or charter schools are urging her to use emergency powers to authorize them to enroll displaced students at the Houston Astrodome and other shelters across the nation.

Ms. Spellings has invited 40 education groups, including the P.T.A. and teachers unions, to meet at the Department of Education today to discuss disaster recovery efforts. Reg Weaver, president of the N.E.A., which has challenged No Child Left Behind in federal court, said he immediately accepted the invitation.

But in a separate letter, he also asked Ms. Spellings to use her powers to waive provisions of the law, which requires school districts to raise student scores on standardized tests each year by a percentage set by each state, a goal known as making adequate yearly progress.

"Until these children, their teachers, districts and families gain their footing under these extremely difficult circumstances, I encourage you to implement the provisions in N.C.L.B. that deal with the impact of natural disasters on testing and adequate yearly progress," Mr. Weaver's letter said.

Ms. Spellings is consulting with state school superintendents as she considers whether to waive the law's accountability provisions in some cases, said her spokeswoman, Susan Aspey. One consideration is how many displaced students that individual schools or districts enroll; those with higher concentrations may be more likely to receive waivers, Ms. Aspey said.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach," she said.

Even before the storm, hundreds of schools that had failed to meet the federal law's proficiency requirements for several years, most of which educate the urban poor or non-English speaking immigrants, were facing sanctions that include school closings and the firing of staff. Thousands of others were expected to be placed on academic probation or labeled as low-performing.

Theodore R. Sizer, a visiting professor of history at Harvard, said that unless the law's accountability provisions were waived during the emergency, they would add tensions to the resettlement crisis.

"Imagine you're the principal of a big high school in city X, and your scores are above the state minimums, so you're doing fine with the law, and suddenly you have 300 displaced kids," Mr. Sizer said. "That not only brings crowding but also means that on the next exams your scores could plummet and the federal law will say you run a terrible school."

The Bush administration must also make decisions about another hotly debated issue in public education: charter schools. The National Council of Education Providers, which represents the nation's largest commercial school management companies, has asked the Department of Education to authorize it to enroll students housed at emergency shelters in Internet-based courses offered by its companies.

The National Council's Web site yesterday highlighted its request to the department to establish a "national virtual charter school" that would "serve evacuees wherever they are."

"Once students have access to computers and connectivity - borrowed, donated or shared - companies are standing by to waive state restrictions and log these students on," the Web site said. The restrictions in question include enrollment caps in state laws that apply to charter schools. The National Council wants the federal government to waive those laws during the emergency.

Jeanne Allen, a paid consultant to the National Council who is also president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization, said she delivered a draft "Emergency Public Charter School Act" to members of Congress yesterday.

— Sam Dillon
New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07/national/nationalspecial/07child.html


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