The New American Refugees

By Jane Weinkrantz


            In 2001, I attended a staff development course on teaching English language learners (ELLs), which is to say, students whose first language is not English. The instructor mentioned that New York City schools were having an especially tough time teaching ELLs from Africa who had been refugees, driven from their homes by warlords, hunger, natural disasters or other factors beyond their control. Their educations had been interrupted, and now their New York City teachers were trying to ascertain what these kids had already learned and what they did not know. Many times, their grade level and their age did not correspond at all. At the time, I remember thinking: how awful to be a poor child in some impoverished nation in Africa, to be torn away from your home, to have your education disrupted, to have to deal with violence or hunger at such a young age. How could those poor children ever catch up academically after such traumatic events made survival a much higher priority than education?

            Now, I am asking the same question. But the children I am thinking of are Americans, the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Their schools have been demolished and will not open until December, at the earliest.  But even if schools in New Orleans , an already impoverished school system, do re-open on schedule, who will attend them?  For the most part, the children who fared the best are now in new homes with their families in other parts of the state or country. Many others are homeless or orphaned.  The New York Times reports that “scores of children have been found wandering alone in search of lost adults” and the number of children separated from their parents could be in the thousands. Currently, reports of missing children number approximately 1,500.    No one seems to have estimated how many children from the Gulf area are now in need of schools or homes.

Thus, after Hurricane Katrina,  I was heartened to hear that school districts across the country are taking in the youngest victims of Hurricane Katrina and providing them with books, lunches and, of course, instruction, all  in keeping with a federal law that mandates schools to enroll homeless children immediately, regardless of what documentation they are able or unable to provide. However, these initiatives are being taken by state and local governments and even individual schools. What the federal government is doing is a bit more sketchy.

             A visit to the Department of Education’s website offers the following information, Laura Bush and Secretary of Education Spellings visited Lovejoy Elementary School in Des Moines , Iowa , to talk about what schools outside the Gulf area can do to help the displaced students and to make an announcement to the Iowa Star of Teaching. (Why not kill two birds with one stone?) Secretary Spellings encouraged families affected by the storm to enroll their children in school as soon as possible. As for the how, when and where of that, she was not so specific.  The website also stated that “President Bush today announced another resource in the nation's continuing efforts to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina—Hurricane Help for Schools, a new Web page aimed at getting additional supplies to schools serving students displaced by the hurricane.’ A lot of school districts are taking in these children who have had to leave their homes and their local districts. And we want to thank the schools and the school districts and the teachers and the PTAs for reaching out and doing their duty,’ President Bush said. ‘ The Dept. of Education will set up a Web page... that will enable people from around the country to be able to access the Department of Education Web page to determine how they can help these school districts that are bringing in the new students.’”

In other words, the government is helping the children affected by the hurricane by setting up a website so the rest of us can help them. They are, in cooperative learning terms, merely the facilitator. The web page simply offers links to forms for offering or requesting services. A disclaimer at the bottom of the page states that none of the listings have been vested and that you donate to them at your discretion. In other words, whether you are donating or receiving services, you are pretty much on your own. Now, I know it was Bush pere who came up with the idea of a “million points of light” and that his son is a big booster of faith based initiatives, but Hurricane Katrina is no time to prove a point. The children of Louisiana , Mississippi , and Alabama need an organized federal response, not the sort of slapdash help that can be arranged through the posting of index cards on bulletin boards at the supermarket!

Other than sending Laura and Margaret Spellings out to drum up assistance and setting up the web page, the Department of Education has taken the following steps, according to

1. A task force meeting of over 50 national education leaders took place to coordinate and deploy resources, and the Department is in continuous contact with state and local education leaders to provide guidance and support.

2. Student loan borrowers living in affected areas may delay payments on their loans without penalty, and deadlines for applying to a number of higher education programs have been extended until at least Dec. 1, 2005 .

3. The Department is examining ways to redirect existing funds toward relief efforts, and is working closely with Congress to best meet the needs of children, families and schools affected by this tragedy.

4.  On a case-specific basis, the Department of Education will be flexible with certain provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act for affected states.

You may be thinking, “Shucks, at least those states figured out how to get rid of NCLB,”---I know I am---but the sad fact is that these baby steps on the part of the government demonstrate complete ignorance and/or indifference to the crisis Hurricane Katrina created and its impact on public education. “ In some ways, this is comparable to the close of the Civil War or the Dust bowl, but we have greater numbers now, and there’s the suddenness of this movement---within a day or two, nearly a million people left their homes,” Jeff Ferrell, a professor of sociology at Texas Christian University told The New York Times. “There’s been a tremendously generous response…But what happens over the next few months? In Texas , we couldn’t even get the Legislature to fully fund the schools.”

            Indeed, what will happen over the next few months, even the next few years, as children displaced by the hurricane enter school districts already burdened with large classes and supply shortages? As they struggle to catch up after missing school for months or more in a new school in a new state with an entirely different curriculum?  As they deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of losing their homes and, in some cases, their families? As high school students too far behind to graduate on time drop out after relocating? As special ed students without their records re-enter classrooms and try to learn as they best they can? As teachers untrained to deal with the new American refugees exhaust their proven strategies and are called upon to create new ones to deal with this breed of student?

            President Bush thanks teachers and PTAs for “doing their duty” in response to Hurricane Katrina. Let us remind him of his duty, which, he is once again shirking.


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