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NCLB In Your Face

Katrina: Observations from Baton Rouge

NOTE: Two schools that were opened in the East Baton Rouge Parish School System need everything. They don't even have desks and chairs.

Mayfair Elementary (K-6)
9886 Hyacinth Ave.
Baton Rouge, LA 70810

Scottlandville Middle School (K-8)
9147 Elm Grove Garden Dr.
Baton Rouge 70807

September 11-14, 05
Baton Rouge

by Denny Taylor

President Bush left every child behind when he spoke to the nation from New Orleans on Thursday night. He talked of money for churches but not
for schools and praised the role of the military but not the role of teachers in what he called "the largest reconstruction in the history of
the world." Eighteen wheelers jam I-55 and I-10, loaded with heavy steel beams, pipes and building materials. Money is pouring in as the water drains out but so far not a drop has reached the schools of the Gulf Coast where 372,000 thousand children have been evacuated from the communities in which their families used to live.

In Baton Rouge every child has a story. They are living in shelters and with people in the community who have taken them in. They have no homes and many children have been separated from families and friends. One little boy was in his house when it was crushed by a truck driven by
high winds and water. His mother managed to get him to a neighbor's house and together they climbed up to the attic as the water rose behind
them. The boy's mom found a piece of Styrofoam and told him to hold it. "Whatever happens don't let it go," she kept telling him as she sat on
the roof holding on to him.

On his first day in his new school the boy cries. He doesn't want his mother to leave him. "I want you to make lots of friends," she tells
him. As he leaves with his new teacher the counselor comforts his mother. "I thought I'd lost him," she says.

In schools teachers welcome every child. Lynne Lay, the principal of Westminister School, invited children to come on Sunday so that "they've been here before" when they arrive on Monday. At her school supplies have been donated by the community. "Let's go shopping," Lynne says to a little girl. "I need a notebook," the girl says. "I bet you need a red pen too," Lynne replies, and the little girl says, "Yes, I think I do."

"This is the first time people have been kind to me since I left New Orleans," a mother says when she registers her three children.

After school the teachers meet and focus on the children but many of them are suffering too. "Many members of my family have lost everything," one teacher says. "My house is okay," another says, "but my mother lost hers, my sister's is destroyed, and my brother's house is gone."

A teacher talks about a principal she knows. "All her family are living with her. Her grandmother was killed in the storm and they can't find her body," she says, "but she is still in school."

Teachers' stories are told in passing. They focus on the children. "Healing can begin at school," a teacher says. "It's important that the children feel loved." They talk about children from the shelters who are so exhausted they sleep with their heads on their desks and about the need for pillows. They puzzle over children who are acting out and how they can support them. "I have a child who is somewhere else," a teacher says. They discuss the conditions in the shelters and share stories that the children have told them.

Teachers are helping teachers. They talk of respecting children's wishes and of children doing their best to cope. First responders in the shelters have not been able to take care of all the children's basic needs and the conversations focus on making sure children have food, clothing and shelter. Teachers discuss the ways in which they are establishing basic routines and engaging children in creative
activities. They know that children who are traumatized need time to catch up with their thoughts and feelings.

Then the conversation shifts and they share their anxiety about meeting the mandates established by the No Child Left Behind Act that includes Federal sanctions for schools and teachers. In Sri Lanka after the tsunami children drew pictures, but in Louisiana and Mississippi NCLB has resulted in new lock step test prep curriculums that leave no room
for traumatized children. Every day in every school, in every grade, every child is supposed to be on the same page, and if a child falls
behind teachers are held accountable. Schools are ranked and carry high stakes for children who fail the tests. They are left behind. Mass
trauma and post traumatic stress do not exempt them from the tests.

Margaret Spellings, the Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration, has said she will consider waiving aspects of the NCLB including requirements on yearly testing and teacher quality. But so far no accommodations have been made even though the "Secretary may provide
the State 1 additional year if the State demonstrates that exceptional or uncontrollable circumstances, such as a natural disaster or a
>precipitous and unforeseen decline in the financial resources of the State" [NCLB: Sec: 1111(b)(7)].

The Federal Government has rushed to allocate funds for the reconstruction of New Orleans but there is no sense of urgency about providing opportunities for the children of the Gulf Coast to reconstruct their lives. No arguments can be made and no scientific evidence can be used to justify the testing of children who have
suffered mass trauma. Requiring the 372,000 displaced children to immediately begin test preparation for NCLB is inhumane. Many children
have experienced acute trauma and their reactions to the trauma are more likely to become chronic the longer we wait to give teachers and counselors every opportunity to attend to their needs.

Education is about more than Federal mandates. Sometimes it's about the struggle for survival. Children's responses to mass trauma depend upon
an interplay of social and environmental conditions and how we respond when they are hurt, not only in the long term but also in the first weeks following a catastrophic event. New Orleans might be rebuilt but what good is that if we don't take care of our children? Teachers and school counselors get this. They know the future of children depends on the kinds of support they receive when disasters take place. Teachers are first responders and they know that their initial response must be much more than preparing distressed children for a NCLB test.

Denny Taylor
Professor and Director of the Doctoral Program
Literacy Studies Department
Hofstra University

Notes from Denny Taylor from Baton Rouge, 9/2005


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