Hurricane Kids Hit Austin Schools

AISD promises to meet evacuees' needs

Backpacks flopping as they bounced off the bus, their hair swept into thick braids or flowing ponytails, a group of evacuee students returned on Monday from their first full day of school at Becker Elementary to their temporary home in the convention center. As the kids ran off to find their parents or clumped up into impromptu games of catch or race-the-stroller-through-the-lobby, Linda Saulsberry and Lily Cotton waited by the glass doors on the west side of the center, waiting for their grandchildren to return from the first day of school at Blackshear Elementary.

Saulsberry and Cottons' grandchildren are two of about 600 evacuee students enrolled in AISD schools. Some are attending schools in the neighborhoods where evacuees are staying with family and friends; those at the convention center have been assigned to seven schools – Becker, Blackshear, and Allan elementaries, Kealing and Porter middle schools, and Lanier and McCallum high schools. The schools were chosen because of their proximity to the center – to make busing easier – and because they have sufficient space to absorb new students. After two half-day orientations last Thursday and Friday – one for introducing parents to the school and the other for placing students in appropriate classes, albeit with a total lack of school records – both the district and the parents were starting to feel settled. The two grandmothers, who each fled New Orleans with only their grandchildren and who met when they became "neighbors" at the convention center, were pleased with what they saw on their tour of Blackshear and now hope to find housing in the school's area.

"It doesn't have too many kids," Cotton said. "And it has all kinds of programs."

"The teachers made the kids feel welcome," Saulsberry added.

Not everyone was pleased by the choices AISD offered, however. Nearby, Brenda Brown waited for her son Nicholas to get off the Blackshear bus. The diminutive woman with a silky white hair wrap said she had heard Blackshear isn't the best school in the district. (It is in fact one of AISD's more struggling elementary schools.) Back in New Orleans, Nicholas had been performing above grade level at a racially and economically diverse alternative school with a waiting list for admission. When she looks for housing, she'll look for a similar school. "He's gifted," said Brown proudly. "He's a child that needs to be challenged." She wasn't sure how to choose a school, however, or even whether AISD was allowing evacuees to transfer.

Staffing the AISD booth in the convention center lobby, Jane Nethercut said evacuees would be allowed to transfer once they found permanent housing. "If they want to go to their neighborhood schools, we'll make it happen." Already, more than half of all AISD schools have at least one evacuee.

The academic challenge of moving in the middle of the year is only one issue facing the new students, and the district as a whole. AISD is not yet sure how the evacuees will count within the high-stakes state and federal accountability systems. And the trauma of the hurricane will have ongoing emotional effects requiring counseling and mental health services. At Monday's board of trustees meeting, Superintendent Pat Forgione promised to meet the academic and mental health challenges of the evacuees.

"We will continue to put our collective arms around these children as long as they need our help," he said.

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Austin Independent School DistrictHurricane Katrina, Hurricane Katrina, Austin ISD, Blackshear, Brenda Brown, Jane Nethercut, Lily Cotton, Linda Saulsberry

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