Despite Hurricane Devastation, Public School Leaders Rally Ahead of the Start of School

September 1, 2017 |

It wasn’t the start to the school year they were anticipating, but it’s the start Hurricane Harvey brought.

When Gulf Coast-area public school principals, teachers, and staffers should have been greeting students and parents, and passing out syllabi, they were trapped inside their homes, tracking down staff and students to make sure they were safe, or using their own resources to rescue neighbors.

“We definitely did not expect all of this, especially with the weather being so perfect on Thursday for Meet the Teacher Night,” said Dion Rivera, principal of Smith Elementary in Magnolia ISD. “Our staff was so excited to have almost all of our families show up, and we couldn’t wait to start school.”

Rivera is one of hundreds of Raise Your Hand Texas alumni who live in areas decimated by Hurricane Harvey.

Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District. Photo sent in by Dr. Cheryl Henry, principal of Cypress Springs High School.

Many school buildings in Harvey’s path, which includes Houston — the largest school district in Texas — won’t be functional for some time, and yet, school must start. Principals, teachers, and staffers who themselves may be hobbled by the storm must find the time required to prepare to teach kids.

It’s an inconceivable task.

“My family is ok,” texted Dr. Robert Long, principal of Thompson Elementary School in Spring ISD. “My house is safe for now. My teachers, on the other hand — that’s another story. Was out all day helping evacuate my staff and their families with my 4×4 truck.”

With so many roads in the area turned to rivers, many school officials say they had to turn to phones and social media to try and contact staff and families in the storm’s aftermath.

Photos sent in by Dr. Cheryl Henry, principal of Cypress Springs High School.

“I have a high school with over 300 employees and 3,100 students,” wrote Cypress Springs High School principal Dr. Cheryl Henry. She can’t get to her school in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD because the area is flooded. She is disheartened, but determined to stay strong. “We have a great district and community that is coming together to help. Some are sheltering with other staff members, and others are at temporary shelters until they can be reunited with family.”

Some schools in the area are likely completely demolished, like KIPP Liberation in Houston’s flood prone Third Ward.

“My school is pretty much under water right now,” said principal Tai Ingram. “One of my teachers was totally flooded out. I now have him, his wife, and his four kids at my home with my family. I’m just hoping my neighborhood doesn’t flood.”

Public school leaders affected by the hurricane are in uncharted territory. But there’s help, and lots of it. One exceptional show of camaraderie in the face of chaos is a Google spreadsheet circulating around the region. Kristen Eriksen, principal of Sunset Valley Elementary school in Keller ISD, created the document. She says she was watching news last weekend when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast. She immediately thought of her Facebook group, a band of principal leaders who share ideas and resources.

“I posed a question to the group,” Eriksen said, “asking if anyone would be willing to adopt a school. Within an hour, I had probably 100 people saying ‘Yes! I want to help!'” So, Eriksen created “Principals Helping Principals” and it has become a space where school leaders at every level are communicating with each other what they need in terms of support, supplies, or other assistance. So far, because of Eriksen’s ingenuity, more than 120 elementary schools alone have been adopted with many more schools wanting to take on helping damaged districts.

“Opening a campus can be daunting,” said Eriksen who opened her own campus a year ago. “But I’m thinking about all these schools having to start over. The realization of what you were used to having, and now starting with nothing. I look around at the beautiful campus I’m on, all the lovely new desks, chairs, and neatly wrapped books, and I wonder, how are they going to get it all back?”

Hurricane Harvey’s wrath was widespread.

Public school leaders are scrambling to literally pick up the pieces in hard hit places like Rockport, Port Arthur, Port Aransas, Corpus Christi … the list goes on and on. The Aransas County Independent School District has posted an update on its website from the superintendent’s desk which reads, “We have just received our formal damage assessment and it has been decided that school will be closed indefinitely. We have an amazing team beginning work on repairs so we can open school as quickly and safely as possible.”

These are the types of “back-to-school” messages you’ll now find on the websites of districts from the Houston area to the coast.

Districts near the affected areas and as far away as Dallas are welcoming students displaced by the storm. 

Nothing much can be done until the waters recede. And then school officials, principals, teachers, staffers, parents, and students will all begin to take whatever becomes the next step. Followed by the next step. Followed by the next step.

“Through all of the recent incidents, we are coming together in love and care for everyone,”wrote Alief ISD Area Superintendent Nancy Trent. “The human spirit is intrinsically good.”

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