Hurricane Harvey wreaks havoc on Houston schools

ByGreg Toppo
Aerial view of a flooded Houston high school

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Kristen McClintock should have been at work teaching special education classes at Houston’s Westside High School on Wednesday afternoon.

Instead, she stood in an isolated corner of the city’s cavernous George R. Brown Convention Center, trying to figure out how to create a comforting “sensory space” for students with autism, who are sensitive to noise.

“It’s loud,” McClintock said. “It’s loud everywhere in here.”

Like her 31,000 colleagues throughout Houston, McClintock doesn’t know when the school year will begin, but she chose not to wait — she signed up to volunteer at the convention center, where thousands of area families have sought shelter amid historic flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey.

Across Houston, classes were scheduled to begin last Monday, but Harvey scuttled those plans, not just for Houston Independent School District — Texas’ largest and the USA’s fourth-largest — but for systems throughout the region. About 216,000 students attend school in the Houston district alone.

Superintendent Richard Carranza said he hoped to begin classes on Sept. 5, but that other, more pressing issues confront his city at the moment. “They’re still plucking people off of roofs,” he said.

The storm impacted more than 1 million students in 244 public and charter school districts statewide, the Texas Education Agency said, though a few have since returned to school.

Carranza speaks nightly by conference call to counterparts in 17 area districts. “This is unprecedented in many, many ways,” he said. “No one has been through this kind of event, but they’ve been through flooding events before.”

In nearby districts, schools are often serving as shelters: In Klein Independent School District, 30 miles north of Houston, flooding on Monday night prompted officials to open Klein Oak High School to families. Pens normally used for livestock shows are temporarily housing dozens of pets who accompanied their owners, the Houston Chronicle reported.

In Houston, inspectors haven’t been able to take a full census of its 300 or so school sites, but of the 70 they’ve visited so far, half have “some degree of water intrusion,” Carranza said. Several also have roof damage.

Among the bigger problems facing inspectors in the region: access. “We can’t even get to the rest of the schools because the roads are inaccessible due to water. They’re literally flooded out.”

So far, Carranza hasn’t even been able to meet with his teachers and staff, many of whom had to flee their homes in the floods. His cabinet communicates via email and text message, with most working remotely.

“Our message has been, ‘Just stay put. If it’s safe, if it’s dry, just stay put.’ Once we get the go-ahead that it’s O.K. to venture out, we’re going to do that.”

Elsewhere in Texas, the school delay could be even longer.

In Rockport, which took a direct hit from Harvey late Friday, Superintendent Joseph Patek last week said the tiny Aransas County Independent School District could be without electricity for as long as four weeks. Rockport’s high school was also heavily damaged by the storm.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday said it had activated its emergency response contact center to help schools’ and colleges’ recovery efforts. The department is taking part in daily briefings led by the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to gauge the extent of damage to the USA’s educational infrastructure. It also said more than 200 colleges and universities impacted by Harvey will get “administrative flexibilities” on federal student aid rules.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten this week urged President Trump to “act swiftly” to provide assistance to schools “without any political rancor.”

The union, she said, demanded that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement not use the disaster “as a way to target immigrants. No one should be afraid to call 911 just because of his or her immigration status. We are better than that.”

At the convention center, McClintock, the special education teacher, said she was soliciting donations of noise-canceling headphones. Once she showed up at the convention center earlier this week, she quickly realized that it’s “kind of hard to find people who are in charge — it’s extremely chaotic.”

On the other hand, she was able to settle in quickly and begin working with little fuss. She’s also coordinating a group of 150 area certified teachers in shelters citywide.

“We’re hoping that this goes beyond shelter just to serve the needs of all the kids in Houston,” she said. “This is going to be a long-term thing.”

At the offices of KIPP Houston Public Schools, the network of 28 charter schools, the storm has brought up memories of another catastrophe: Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
After that storm upended New Orleans’ school system and forced thousands of families to flee, many families ended up in Houston. KIPP closed one of its New Orleans schools and, with the help of Teach For America, essentially moved it to Houston.

New Orleans West College Prep opened its doors that fall for 350 students, about 10% to 15% of whom attended the original school 350 miles away.

“What was unique about this school was that it was all students from New Orleans,” said Deedrah Harp, one of the school’s counselors, who now serves as KIPP Houston’s chief innovation officer.

It stayed open for just two years — federal law dictated that since the school served students who were essentially homeless, it could operate only temporarily. A year later, many of its families — and teachers — went back to New Orleans, but many stayed on in Houston.

Twelve years later, Harp said, as Harvey’s floodwaters recede, “We know that we’re going to have students who are going to emerge with more critical needs than others.” To that end, KIPP this week established a Family Emergency Fund to underwrite donations for food, gas, clothing and other essentials. They’ve also opened pantries at each school.

The network, which prides itself on long school days and years, actually began the 2017-2018 academic calendar in Houston earlier than most: Its 14,500 students showed up for class on Aug. 21, and attended school for four days before the storm forced them out.

Like much of the city education system, KIPP hopes to open next week. And like Carranza, Sehba Ali, KIPP Houston’s superintendent, is assessing damage to her facilities. “We definitely want to have as many kids in school as possible,” she said. “I think our kids need the structure and the safety and the nurturing that regular school can provide.”

The network, founded in Houston in 1994, has come through for their Houston colleagues this week, Ali said. KIPP schools nationwide have offered to fly counselors in at no cost to help students and staff cope with the stress of dislocation.

“It’s been tremendous,” Ali said, “and it’s certainly lifted us up in a challenging time.”