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Friday, September 29, 2023


Study sheds light on Katrina evacuees

Four years ago, at least 150,000 people were displaced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, 5,000 of whom were ushered into Houston-area schools. While the motion to help these resource-starved and desperate evacuees deserved praise, concerns emerged among Houstonians as to how accommodations for hurricane victims would affect the city.

UH professors Scott Imberman and Adriana Kugler and Dartmouth professor Bruce Sacerdote conducted a research study to find out how Houston’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina ultimately affected its own residents.

Imberman said the reasons they pursued this information were both for personal interest and a reaction to parental concerns.

In the 2009 paper ‘Katrina’s Children: Evidence on the Structure of Peer Effects from Hurricane Evacuees,’ the professors honed in on what happened in the Houston Independent School District as a result of the sudden onslaught of newcomers.’

They sought to find how the addition of students to HISD would impact different aspects of the system, including academic performance, swollen class sizes, funding and resource deficiencies, attendance and teaching quality.

The study addressed whether any of the aforementioned areas saw the expected changes, and determined whether HISD’s handling of the potential shake-up was conducive to maintaining an effective learning environment.

‘ The trio of professors used administrative data, like test scores and academic records, as well as personal interviews of teachers and student bodies, for more personal data.

The researchers mainly concentrated on the ‘peer effect’ – whether new faces with contrasting backgrounds would influence the native population. They found that the ‘bad apple’ model did not apply as far as spoiling students’ grades, though behavior and attendance did take minor but notable dips.

‘We wanted to see if there would be a spillover effect,’ Imberman said. ‘Since HISD (was) able to keep resources level enough, students didn’t suffer academically.’

Kugler agrees that the results were surprising, as they expected that the evacuees were going to influence Houston children in a negative way.

‘It should have been a situation where you think who (students) hang around with actually matters,’ Kugler said.

Many Katrina evacuees sought shelter in low-income apartments or hotels, struggled with limited financial means, and grieved missing or dead loved ones. This could help explain why their most significant impact on Houstonians was behavioral.’

‘It seemed it was a big challenge for (HISD) to maintain discipline for students and keep a lid on their problems,’ Imberman said, acknowledging that for the evacuees ‘it can be a very emotionally draining thing.’

While new presences in the classroom did not affect locals much, the change of scenery was beneficial for the evacuees.

In 2005, Houston’s Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) gathered funding from local taxes to run a charter school that had been created for displaced students before they had the option of entering other public schools, which was made available to them at the end of the year.

Though many Houston parents and teachers worried that the budgets for their own schools would suffer, the money used by KIPP ended up mostly on a ‘lend’ basis, as it paid HISD $40 a month for each student it enrolled.

Directors at KIPP noted that some students from New Orleans, who couldn’t even read before relocating, began meeting performance standards for their grade levels once assimilated into HISD.

‘The quality of education in New Orleans was a problem before Katrina hit, and now that has been exacerbated,’ Mike Feinberg, KIPP’s co-founder, said in an interview with the Houston Chronicle.

A 2006 Rice University survey of more than 350 Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston found that 69 percent planned to stay there for good. A majority of 57 percent considered their lives better on account of the local education system.

Ryan Aivalis, a psychology junior, remembered the news coverage and environmental wreckage caused by the hurricane, but only vaguely recalled the new students welcomed onto campus.

Aivalis said there was an evacuated student in one of his classes who had planned to attend Tulane University in New Orleans, ‘but that got blown out of the sky and UH was willing to help him. (The) student body (and) my class were like, ‘Okay, (are) you adjusting?”

‘(We) never heard much from him after that,’ Aivalis said. ‘No one really cared in a way. He was a new student under peculiar circumstances, period. Seems like it was that way with a lot of evacuees, but maybe that’s the way they wanted it.’

Both Kugler and Imberman believe that, although the study commenced prior to Hurricane Katrina’s first damages, it is completely relevant today.’

‘Certainly, we had Ike, (when) kids moved to HISD again,’ Kugler said. ‘People will always worry about how others will affect their kids.’

She also said Terry Grier, the new superintendent of HISD, has talked about closing some of the lower-performing schools in Houston, which could greatly affect how the district will handle emergency situations like Katrina in the future.

‘He’s under a great deal of pressure,’ she said. ‘It’s a good lesson for across the country.’

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