Houston School Superintendent Says A Lot Of Work Ahead To Open Schools

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on August 30, 2017 5:56 pm

This week was supposed to be the start of a brand-new school year for the 200,000, or so, students in the Houston Independent School District.

Instead, kids, teachers and staff are dealing with the fallout from Harvey's record-breaking rainfall and devastating floods.

Richard Carranza, Houston schools superintendent, is trying to figure out when school can start — and where, in cases where high waters flooded out schools and homes. Even as he recognizes this school year will be very different, he says the focus will be on teaching kids, wherever Harvey has scattered them.

"In no way, shape or form do I feel this is going to be a lost year," says Carranza. "I have every expectation that, you know, we'll look back at the end of the school year and just be tremendously proud of how our city came together, how the nation came to wrap its arms around Houston."

The school district announced that it will be able to provide all students this school year with three free meals. The majority of students in Houston public schools are low-income and given the current circumstances, free meals could be welcome news for many families.

Before then, though, the first step to opening schools is to make sure the city's streets and other infrastructure can handle thousands of children and teachers back on the roads. And Carranza is working closely with the mayor, the police chief and other officials to make that happen.

The Houston school district also has to check its own infrastructure — how many campuses suffered damage and where kids can study. Carranza also needs to see which teachers are ready to come back. Many of them have also evacuated or suffered loss.

"Obviously, if any one of those three is not in a state of preparedness, we just won't be able to open school on Tuesday as planned. So we're moving with all haste," Carranza says. He's hoping to make a decision by late this week.

The nation's seventh largest district has just over 280 schools. Carranza says that it's hard to know how many suffered damage because some are still inaccessible due to floodwaters. District crews have been heading to schools — sometimes in boats — to check them out.

As of Tuesday, the district had been able to assess 75 campuses. About half had damage, ranging from minimal leakage to feet of flooding.

Dozens of other school districts across the region — with over a million school children — are dealing with the aftermath of Harvey. Carranza says he's spent every evening on the phone with other superintendents to check in and assess the situation — sharing advice and support.

Carranza says some of those school chiefs, as well as others from Louisiana and around the country, have dealt with this kind of crisis before. They've already shared some lessons on how to get through Harvey's wake.

"Number one, you just have to accept the fact that post the tragedy, that things will be in disarray and it may be in disarray for months," he says.

But just as much, he says, the district will do everything to serve its children where they are. If that means some campuses require months of repair, Houston may consolidate campuses for a time. Or if thousands of children are living in the city's mega shelters, like the downtown convention center where there are now 8,000 evacuees, the district may send school buses to take students to and from class.

Through it all, he says, the district is aggressively trying to communicate with its students and staff over social media and the website, in both English and Spanish.

For Carranza, who's just starting his second year at the helm of Houston's schools, Harvey has created what he calls, "The most difficult time in his professional career."

"I'm heartbroken for our families and I'm heartbroken for our employees and I'm heartbroken for our city because we're going to be in pain for a little while. I think the more we can do to come together, the better."

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This week was supposed to be the start of a new school year in Houston. Harvey forced the school district to delay opening by at least a week. And today the district said all students will eat meals for free during the coming school year. Richard Carranza is the school superintendent, and he joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

RICHARD CARRANZA: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Classes are scheduled to resume this coming Tuesday, September 5. Do you think that's going to happen?

CARRANZA: It's 50/50 right now. We're still out doing a survey of all of our facilities. We have about just under 300 buildings that are school buildings in our district. We have 216,000 students and 31,000 employees. We've only been able to get to about 45 of those buildings to do assessments because the rest of them are just flooded. The neighborhoods are flooded, and we can't get to them.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And if some of the buildings are damaged and others are not, do you have plans that you could, you know, potentially open some schools but not others, double up? What sorts of things are you considering?

CARRANZA: Yeah. So we have multiple Gantt charts based on multiple scenarios. So everything from just delaying the entire start of the school year for another week or a couple of weeks and get as many buildings up and running as we can to having a rolling start to the school year where we'll open a portfolio of schools on one day and then maybe the next week as we've prepared another group of schools.

We've also looked at HUB schools so that we have enough facilities so that we can move students from damaged campuses onto one facility while we repair that facility - multiple scenarios that we're working through. But the key is going to be to actually understand the scope of the damage to our buildings before we can make an announcement on the start of school.

SHAPIRO: I know that about three quarters of the kids in Houston public schools come from economically disadvantaged families. There's probably going to be even more financial strain on those families now that they're dealing with the consequences of the storm. Is that the reason the school district is offering free meals in the coming year? And what other steps are you thinking you might take?

CARRANZA: Yeah. So that's important because the last thing we want parents to worry about is, how are they going to get money for students to eat? So we've been working on a plan to go district-wide. But unfortunately, you know, you never waste a good crisis. This has allowed us to actually expedite that plan. And we're very grateful to the Department of Agriculture and the state of Texas Department of Agriculture to support us in that. But the other thing that we're working on concomitantly with the assessment of our facilities, Ari, is that once we do start school, we know that students will have suffered trauma...


CARRANZA: ...Just by going through this event. So we're actually finalizing a comprehensive plan for crisis counselors for all of our students in our schools. But knowing that our school first responders - our teachers, our nurses, our counselors - have also undergone trauma, we're working with the Council of the Great City Schools, which are the 60 largest urban school districts in America. And our sister school districts across the country are identifying crisis counselors in their school districts. So when and if the need arises, we can have our colleagues from across the country come and help support not only our students as they come back to school but also our teachers and counselors, our caregivers.

SHAPIRO: I know that after Hurricane Katrina, a lot of students came to Houston from New Orleans, and that presented some challenges for the schools in Houston. Were there lessons you learned from that experience?

CARRANZA: Oh, yeah. So we're actually - as part of the Council of Great City Schools, a lot of superintendents that have experiences during Katrina - so we are actually talking, and I'm getting a lot of advice about what we should be thinking about and what should we be doing.

So the two biggest things that people have told me that have been through it is, number one, just accept the fact that there's going to be chaos for a while because the city is going to be in chaos. But the district that's a microcosm of the city is also going to be in chaos. So just accept that it's going to be chaotic.

And number two, serve the students in the best way you can. So don't worry so much about getting every facility up and running. If you've got a facility that's in good shape and you can move other students from a facility that's not in good shape and move them to that facility and serve them well, do what you have to do to serve the kids immediately in the front end. You know, that's a good - that's great advice because you kind of want to fix everything at once.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about any of the stories you've heard or things you've seen firsthand from your students or teachers that reflect the kinds of challenges that lie ahead?

CARRANZA: Yeah, so we know of - I know personally of one of our teachers who - she and her husband lost everything. They lost their home that they had just purchased. She lost all of her teaching materials. They lost all of their clothing. And they were in a shelter, and they had been taken in by a colleague of theirs. I know for a fact our board president had to be rescued from her home, and she's lost her vehicle and her home and everything.

So this storm hasn't discriminated against anyone. Everybody's been touched, and everybody's been touched in a very, very dramatic way. This is a historic event for Houston. And I think it's going to be a matter of time before we're able to get everybody back into a normal state of affairs. But it's an incredibly resilient community.

SHAPIRO: Richard Carranza is the superintendent of Houston Public Schools. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARRANZA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.