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Q&A: Returning Young Hurricane Evacuees to School

Many school districts along the Gulf Coast have stopped functioning, at least temporarily. Students from those districts are scattered across the South and the nation, just as the new school year gets under way. Getting the youngsters back in school is a huge challenge amid all the other pressing needs of Katrina's survivors. Claudio Sanchez, who covers education for NPR, sorts out some of the key questions about the task.

How many school children have been displaced?

No one knows for sure. But this much is known -- more than 136,000 students from New Orleans and another 35,000 from six counties in Mississippi will not go back to their schools any time soon because the buildings were totally or partially destroyed. The number of students displaced is also likely to climb as we begin to hear from many of the small, rural school systems in Katrina's path throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

What are the biggest challenges to getting evacuees back to school?

There are many. Simply processing information about these children is a big undertaking. Children must be interviewed to document their age, what school they attended and what grade they're in. That'll help determine what grade to be placed in at their new school. Monday will be the first day back for tens of thousands who have already made their way to cities hundreds of miles away, like Houston, Memphis and Jackson, Mississippi ... or closer to home in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, Louisiana. Lafayette, for example, has already processed more than 2,500 children. In the next few days they'll be issued school uniforms, supplies, and textbooks. And depending on where their parents can find housing, the district's trying to figure out these kids' transportation needs.

What about the students' school records?

That's another challenge. These records are essential, especially if families decide to permanently resettle. School records from New Orleans and Jefferson parishes may have been destroyed. The only people who can fill in the blanks on new forms will be the parents. And that won't always be easy, given that many people are still traumatized by their experiences in the last week.

Given those traumatic experiences, are the children ready to go back to school?

Perhaps, but they will need special attention. Many of them now have a variety of medical and mental health needs. Many will need long-term counseling. One teenager who is now at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, for example, described spending several days at home, watching dead bodies floating in the streets. Educators have to figure out how well these kids can function at school. Still, these kids desperately need to get back into some kind of routine, something that schools should be able to provide -- whether it's academic work or participation in sports, arts and music.

And how well are they doing?

Educators report that some of the young children cry constantly because they're not home, not sleeping in their own beds. They cry because they've lost a pet or a favorite toy, or worse -- they've lost a loved one. Schools that will be dealing with these children over the next months have to figure out how to help these children understand what happened to them. In many ways that's just as important as providing food, shelter and other basic needs.

What of the offers to help are coming in from all over the country?

One organizations that has been monitoring this is the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation's largest urban public school systems. As of last weekend, the council had heard from 28 big-city schools systems that had either already taken in school children who were evacuees, or had planned to do so. Houston expects 6,000 to 8,000 of these students. But schools as far away as Anchorage, Alaska, are also offering to educate the youngsters. So has Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago; Cleveland; Denver; Detroit, and Tucson. All of these school districts have policies that allow them to tap into federal funds to help enroll homeless students, which is how these children are now classified by the U.S. Department of Education.

What about the federal No Child Left Behind law -- and all of the new federal requirements?

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings says she will issue automatic waivers to school districts that are taking in the evacuees -- to quickly register children across state lines, for example, and to allow displaced teachers to work in other states and communities. Hundreds of teachers from New Orleans and Jefferson parishes have already been hired by schools in East Baton Rouge. However, Spellings has, so far, declined to waive any requirements that schools test displaced children at some point during the school year. As she told me in an interview, "We don't want to write off this school year academically for these kids, and shouldn't, at least not yet."

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