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What will this school year be like?

School has finally started for most of HISD and many surrounding districts, but with the devastation and disruption of Harvey, what can we expect from this academic year?

Many students in Houston ISD lost everything – their homes, their school supplies, their clothes, their toys.

Some are staying in the mega-shelters at the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Park. Others were flown by military helicopter to Dallas and San Antonio, where they have already started school. Still more are shaken after being plucked from their flooded homes by boats and Humvees.

With more than 600,000 Houston-area students set to return to the classroom Monday, teachers and school officials wonder how many will show up – and if they’ll be ready to learn.

And at some schools, business as usual will be a distant memory.

“It’s hard to focus on the lesson of the day when you’re worried about, ‘How is my home? How is my family?” said Ezemenari Obasi, associate dean for research in the University of Houston’s College of Education. “Those questions and worries become more salient than the lesson plan at school.”

[…]

While school can help provide some sense of normalcy, Obasi said paying attention to lessons and regurgitating a year’s worth of knowledge during hours-long standardized tests could prove much more difficult for flood-affected students.

He said the brain’s ability to focus can be severely hampered after experiencing significant anxiety, especially for children and teens’ whose brains are still developing.

“It’s really difficult to assess a person’s capacity when they’re not 100 percent available to focus and attempt the task,” Obasi said. “Many things we measure in schools involve students having to focus. They have to have good spatial processing or cognitive abilities, and if you can’t focus, it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything, let alone ace an important standardized test.”

Obasi said stress can cause a host of physical and mental ailments, from sleeplessness and an inability to concentrate in the short-term to addiction and diabetes in the long-term.

Exhaustion is a real concern, Obasi said, as many have issues falling asleep and staying asleep during times of significant stress. On top of that, anxiety can hamper the brain’s ability each morning to release cortisol, a hormone that helps people get out of bed and going, making such tasks exponentially more tiresome for students.

Then there are the constant distractions – random triggers that will remind students of the worst days of their lives, questions about where their family will live, uncertainty about where their next meal will come from.

There are so many challenges facing HISD this year, from schools that aren’t ready to open and in some cases may never be to teachers who are still dealing with their own damaged houses and cars to students who have been displaced to points unknown. Indeed, quite a few of these students are now homeless, for who knows how long.

The Texas Homeless Education Office estimates that about 35,000 to 40,000 students have been affected by Hurricane Harvey. On top of that, more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide canceled or delayed classes, some indefinitely.

Jeanne Stamp, the office’s director, said some families have relocated to Dallas and San Antonio but Houston is sure to see their already large number of homeless children balloon.

Federal protections require schools to immediately enroll children who have lost their regular homes, including those affected by a natural disaster.

That federal law allows homeless children to either stay in the school they were attending or enroll in the school in the neighborhood where they are currently staying, with transportation costs divided equally between the two districts if there’s a funding dispute.

The Texas “Third Choice” law goes even further, allowing homeless students the choice to enroll in any school district in the state, regardless of their school of origin or the location of the place where they are staying.

But the state law doesn’t require transportation to be provided, something Michael Santos, an attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, urged schools to offer in order to comply with the over-arching federal law.

“That falls under the obligation to remove barriers for the student attending school,” Santos said. “Transportation is controversial and it’s expensive.”

For Houston, the transportation issue could be even more heightened as many displaced families are likely to have to commute across the sprawling metro area, between where they want to go to school and where they’re stuck sleeping at night.

“Sometimes public bus passes help get kids to school. Sometimes parents have a vehicle but don’t have funds for gas,” Stamp said. “It is a very costly piece of the service but it’s a necessarily piece of the service.”

Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right? Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test. I don’t know how the state can enforce that threat in good conscience this year given the extreme exogenous circumstances HISD must deal with, but as yet there’s been no discussion, let alone decisions, to that effect.

The point is that this was going to be a tough year for HISD no matter what, but before Harvey hit you could see a path to holding off the TEA from doing anything undesirable. It’s a lot harder to see such a path now. And as bad as HISD has it, some others have it worse. This is why some folks are petitioning for a halt to STAAR testing for the ISDs affected by Harvey. I don’t think that will get anywhere, and to be honest I’m not sure that it should. But I do know that the TEA and the Lege need to take a far more measured approach to accountability this year. No one – no student, no school, no district – should be penalized for having to go through all this.

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4 Comments

  1. Ross says:

    My son’s bus route(he goes to a magnet high school) was changed without notice. He was over 30 minutes late to school in the morning, and it took 3 hours to get home in the afternoon, with an hour spent waiting for a school not on the schedule to dismiss students. Regardless of circumstances, that’s just bad.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    Hey, you know what one of the ancillary effects of HISD going into recapture was? They lost state funding for transportation. Hell of a time for that to happen, with all these students needing to travel farther to go to school, right?

    Kuff, the important thing to remember is, we got those school names changed. Kids stuck indeterminably on buses, like Ross’ kid, just have to hold onto that, and know that their sacrifice is worth it. Also, why spend money on buses when we can just feed all the kids breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the whole school year?

    Priorities, people.

  3. C.L. says:

    @Kuff… re: “Layered on top of all that is the takeover threat from the TEA if certain campuses don’t show sufficient improvement on the STAAR test.”…

    The targeted ‘takeover’ schools had been sucking wind for at least three years to make the TEA list.

  4. Bill Daniels says:

    Still trying to find out about the North Forest ISD schools HISD adopted. Are they among the takeover threat schools, or do they get a new clock since they are in a new district?

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