After the storm: Evacuated students settle into Gwinnett schools

After the storm: Evacuated students settle into Gwinnett schools

School communities have been generous and creative in supporting both their new neighbors and classmates and the charities and agencies working with Katrina victims around the country. From spare-change drives, tracked with a Caring Quilt, to collections of thousands of food and baby items to a Mardi-Gras bead fundraiser… these are just a few examples of how Gwinnett schools have responded to Hurricane Katrina. From left to right, pictured students and staff are from Alton C. Crews Middle, Berkeley Lake Elementary, and Parkview High.

When Hurricane Katrina battered coastal communities in three states in late August, hundreds of thousands of families fled the devastation, scattering across the country. State officials say nearly 10,000 schoolchildren were among evacuees who found their way to Georgia, and have made a home, at least temporarily, in towns and cities across the state. Not surprisingly, metro Atlanta has drawn the lion’s share of families, and Gwinnett County Public Schools, Georgia’s largest school system, has enrolled the most children—1,338 students, as of Sept. 26— from Katrina-affected areas. (That number had dropped to 1,250 by November.)

While many families fleeing Katrina had relatives or friends in the area, others simply had nowhere else to go and traveled hundreds of miles to the South’s largest metropolitan area, hoping for short-term shelter. For some, the move to Georgia represents a new beginning.
Kudos to local school registrars
and office staff…who enrolled 1,300+ students in a very short time, under trying circumstances. GCPS Social Worker Michael Frech praises staff on the registration frontline, saying their familiarity with federal guidelines on homeless students helped keep the transition “remarkably smooth.”

“Our counselors work daily with students who have experienced loss and family issues, but the counseling response to Katrina is complicated by the sheer numbers and the tragic circumstances under which students have entered our school communities. Counselors and local schools have done, and will continue to do, a tremendous job caring for individual students and coordinating schoolwide responses to the needs of Katrina families in Gwinnett and around the country through fundraisers, food and clothing drives, and other activities.”
Dr. Carrie Booher, director, Student Academic Support and Advisement

Education officials in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama give varying estimates of when children will be able to return to their schools. Some facilities were destroyed or heavily damaged and must be rebuilt. Others will require extensive cleanup, particularly in flooded areas. While some schools may be able to reopen this fall, and others may be ready for spring semester, the question remains whether families will be able, or willing, to return to their old neighborhoods.

Here in Gwinnett, the school system’s counselors and social workers have been on the front lines, working with local schools to enroll children in classes, gather needed school supplies, help with paperwork, and connect families with needed resources. Counselors did initial assessments, referring families with the greatest need to a team of school social workers who work most closely with homeless students in the county.

The social workers have helped families find everything from book bags to lodging, supported by local schools and numerous community organizations like food pantries, faith-based groups, the American Red Cross, Travelers Aid, The Salvation Army, Department of Family and Children Services, the Gwinnett Housing Authority, and other nonprofit agencies.

GCPS was among the agencies and organizations represented at the Mega Center in Lawrenceville, a one-stop aid location for evacuees during the early weeks of the evacuation. GCPS social workers manned a table at the center, including weekends, answering questions and offering support to families with children. In addition, social workers took supplies directly to families living at local extended-stay motels, says Steve Bennett, coordinator for Health Services and School Social Workers. At one point, up to 100 families were housed in just two extended-stay motels in Norcross, says Michael Frech, GCPS school social worker.

Gulf-area educators find new teaching homes post-Katrina

Several Katrina evacuees have found new teaching homes in Gwinnett schools and more teachers from the affected region are applying. As evacuated students have enrolled in schools, additional teaching spots have opened. “We’ve been fortunate to hire a number of highly qualified teachers in critical-needs areas, including two speech-language pathologists,” says Kelly Herndon, GCPS director of Recruitment.
Over the course of the school year, counselors will be working with evacuated children, traumatized by Katrina and the aftermath. A series of professional learning sessions with Georgia State University counseling experts have armed GCPS counselors with additional strategies and approaches for working with students displaced by the hurricane. Counselors want to ensure that students are adjusting emotionally and socially to their new schools and circumstances, but also that children are making the transition academically.

“For our newest students, the return to a school-day routine and a focus on learning new things are important to coping with, and moving beyond, these events,” says Dr. Carrie Booher, director of Student Academic Support and Advisement. “Supported by caring adults and new friends, the children will continue their education in strong learning communities. Our schools are working to remove barriers to learning, providing academic interventions as the students tackle GCPS’ rigorous curriculum.”

While many displaced families have questions about what the future holds, the question of how Gwinnett school communities would respond to a natural disaster three states away already has been answered— with a warm welcome and a helping hand.