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Schools take in displaced students

Hurricane evacuees begin to enroll in other states

By Marnie Hunter


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Department of Education

(CNN) -- As education officials assess damage and begin rebuilding plans, schools across the country have opened their doors to students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

High school junior Lauren Sherman evacuated from New Orleans and started classes this week at Saint Benedict High School in Memphis, Tennessee.

"I'm fine with it. It's just hard not being with everyone. It's junior year, it's like your prom year," Lauren said.

Louisiana officials estimate 135,000 public school students and 52,000 private school students have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

The storm has forced 160,000 students out of schools in Mississippi, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

School districts in states from New York to California are welcoming displaced students.

In Alabama, 3,118 displaced students from the southern regions of the state, Mississippi and Louisiana had enrolled in new schools as of Thursday morning.

"Our first concern is to be able to get the students in, get them enrolled," said Mitch Edwards, communication director for the Alabama Department of Education.

"We've waived a great many different restrictions to make sure that they're here."

Louisiana has sent student data, including transcripts and class schedule information, from schools in the New Orleans area to other states, Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard said.

Education officials in Texas, where more than 100,000 hurricane victims have taken refuge, are not sure how many new students to expect.

As of Wednesday, 18,905 evacuees had enrolled in Texas public schools.

Officials don't know yet how the cost of providing additional resources to accommodate the influx of students will be handled.

"Our focus right now is really just trying to make sure these kids are OK. They've suffered through an enormous ordeal," said Suzanne Marchman, a Texas Education Agency spokeswoman.

"We'll get to funding eventually, but we believe that FEMA and the U.S. Department of Education are expected to cover a great deal of the costs associated with educating the evacuees," she said.

President Bush announced Tuesday that Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is working on a plan to help states cover the expense of adding additional students.

Hurricane Help for Schools, a Web site set up by the Education Department, is linking schools in immediate need of supplies and donations for incoming students with companies and individuals who want to help.

In Houston, Texas, the Houston Independent School District had enrolled 2,743 evacuees by Friday.

The district is opening two elementary schools that had previously been closed to accommodate elementary school-aged evacuees and is working to hire hundreds of teachers from a pool of professionals including retired teachers, teachers who were awaiting assignments in the district and teachers from Teach for America, a national group of recent graduates committed to teaching in urban and rural schools.

It also expects to hire dozens of teachers from Louisiana, and scheduled a job fair for displaced teachers on Thursday at the district's administrative headquarters.

State laws requiring a 22:1 student to teacher ratio in grades K-4 have been waived to make room for incoming students. School districts are expected to hire additional teachers where they feel class sizes are too large, Marchman said.

"[Resources] could potentially be stretched in the first few days of these increased enrollments until additional textbooks can arrive, until districts can shuffle around extra furniture, but we think that eventually it will level out."

Schools will play an important role in helping young Katrina victims cope with the disaster, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.

Those accepting displaced students should be prepared for students with specific mental health needs and other special needs that may be intensified by their recent experiences, the association's Web site said.

The association encourages schools to assign displaced students to schools together, to establish welcome committees and mentoring programs to help students acclimate and to check in with relocated students regularly.

Psychological support in Texas schools will be organized at the local level, Marchman said. School counselors are available to assist students and specialized support programs are in place in some areas.

"There are various entities and organizations that are reaching out to school districts to provide psychological support for these kids," she said.

CNN's Jason Carroll contributed to this report.

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