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Katrina or Xenia - Schools Can Make a Huge Difference

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September 9, 2005

By William L. Bainbridge

Katrina or Xenia - Schools Can Make a Huge Difference

As schools throughout the gulf coast region prepare to act as emergency shelters for thousands of children and adult victims of Hurricane Katrina, the same public schools also are preparing for an unprecedented influx of new pupils in the form of young evacuatees.

Katrina decimated the Orleans Parish Public Schools and countless other area public school systems and private schools, along with higher education institutions such as Tulane, Loyola and Xavier Universities, forcing all to close indefinitely.

Unaffected school systems are required to admit students who are hurricane refugees because, whether living with relatives, in a shelter or in a car, they meet the definition of homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Act. The federal law entitles them to enroll in the school system in which they are physically present without having to document residency. Recently, many state officials have made the process easier by waiving normal immunization requirements and allowing schools to apply for waivers of student-teacher ratio requirements.

School administrators in Texas, Florida, Georgia and even Tennessee are welcoming children who, with or without their parents, fled to escape the storm. The potential for thousands more has school leaders concerned about the complicated logistics of not knowing how many are on the way. 137 students, for example, have made their way to the homes of relatives in Florida's highly rated Santa Rosa County School District, near Pensacola. "They do not have anything, no records, no school supplies, " said Superintendent John Rogers from his office in Milton, FL, 215 miles from the French Quarter. "We are working with the United Way and other local organizations to take care of their needs, " he said. Rogers has an extra sense of empathy for hurricane victims. His district has been hit hard twice in recent years.

The situation brings back vivid and frightening memories of the F-5 tornado that tore through the heart of Xenia, Ohio, on April 3rd, 1974 killing 33 people and injuring more than 1,300 others. The tornado was part of an unusual outbreak, when 148 twisters swept across several states, killing 335 people in a sixteen-hour period. It still ranks as one of the largest disasters in American history. The tornadoís destruction made a path more than a half-mile wide, destroying or damaging more than 1,400 buildings, including the new Xenia High School, several elementary schools, over a thousand homes and many businesses. The dollar toll was in excess of $100 million. While not up to Katrina's numbers, the natural disaster was a serious test for leaders in Xenia and surrounding communities.

When those of us with the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) at the time arrived on the scene, people told us of seeing a black blanket full of debris with tentacles reaching down and breaking buildings in its wake. The tornado demolished the high school, empty except for a few students rehearsing for a theatrical performance. Thankfully, none of the students were killed. Fortunately, coaches had canceled high school baseball and other practices that late afternoon. The roof collapsed onto the gym floor where the baseball players would have been practicing.

The similarity with Katrina lies in the amazing job then Xenia Superintendent Carl Adkins did in working with the O.D.E. and the neighboring school districts including Beavercreek, Fairborn, Yellow Springs and Dayton. Students and teachers did have to attend classes during evening hours, but they were back in a host school in less than two weeks. The Xenia City School District received $ 20 million in federal and state aid to rebuild for itís over 8,000 students. .

Then Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Martin W. Essex spent a great deal of time in Xenia, and personally removed many of the bureaucratic obstacles of the type that seem to be a major problem with the massive Katrina tragedy. State and federal rules and regulations were adjusted with a stroke of a pen. While President Richard M. Nixon visited the site, it was Essex, then Democratic Ohio Governor John Gilligan and then Republican Speaker of the House Charles Kurfess who made the difference in creating a form of normalcy for students. In September of 1977 all students were back in Xenia classrooms. Amazingly, in 2000, Xenia and its schools suffered another tornado, but with less damage.

In the case of a natural disaster, children desperately need stability. When legislatures are considering educational construction appropriations, it is important to remember that school buildings and school systems not only offer important education of the future workforce, but also play a major part in providing invaluable services for both adults and children in cases of natural disasters, like the Xenia tornado and Hurricane Katrina.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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