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Schools have made remarkable progress

Editor;

It has been over a year since Hurricane Katrina roared on to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, leaving unbelievable damage in its wake and many of us wondering how we would pick up the pieces and put our communities, families and lives back together. Sixteen of our schools were completely destroyed. Twenty-four schools were severely damaged, while 263 schools suffered minimum, mild or moderate damage. Only 14 of 152 school districts didn’t lose any days because of the storm. In less than 24 hours, millions of dollars of school assets were lost.

School leaders and teachers across the state realized what a crucial role they would play in the rebuilding effort. The schools were an extremely important piece of the puzzle for communities and families. Communities could not rebound until families returned and families could not return until schools were back open, so school personnel rolled up their sleeves and tackled the many challenges necessary to resume classes, even while many of them had lost their homes and everything in them. All but one school district was open by mid-October. The final school district was able to open in early November, when the roads were cleared, allowing their portable classrooms to be delivered.

Even as far north as Central Mississippi, schools were closed over a week due to power outages, roads blocked from downed trees and fuel shortages. The impact of the storm was felt all over the state.

While the schools on the Coast were working to reopen, school districts all over the state stepped up to the plate and welcomed displaced students, both from our own Gulf Coast districts as well as children from Louisiana. In addition to keeping them on track academically, the schools also gave the children a normal routine and a sense of belonging that they so desperately needed.

We were fortunate to have strong leadership at both the state and federal level to help our schools get back to work. Governor Haley Barbour, as well as Senator Thad Cochran, Senator Trent Lott and our Congressmen, were true champions for our schools. They were instrumental in getting almost 500 portable classrooms for us and for the passage of the Federal Hurricane Recovery Act, which provided aid for restarting school operations and educating displaced students. We have received $222.5 million in aid to restart school operations and $100 million in aid for displaced students. These additional resources have made a tremendous difference for our schools.

Our schools have also been fortunate to receive donations of supplies, money and services from within our state and far beyond our boundaries. The generosity of everyone who has helped our schools, from young schoolchildren in Vermont to large worldwide corporations, has been overwhelming. The many donors and the many needs they have filled are too numerous to mention here, but each and every one has been deeply appreciated by the schools, their students, parents, teachers and leaders.

Amid the tragedy of the storm, there have also been incredible triumphs. Our schools were committed to ensuring that our students did not lose a year of instructional time due to the events of August 29, 2005 and its aftermath. The test scores released recently demonstrate that our students in the impacted area didn’t just hold their own this year, they excelled.

Certainly, we have a long road ahead. The portable classrooms, while a godsend last fall, are not a permanent solution. Rebuilding these schools will be a long and sometimes arduous process. From site selection through final construction and opening the schools for students, there will be many challenges to overcome.

However, during the past year, I have learned two very important lessons. First, if we can recover from Katrina, if we can move the mountains we have had to move over the past year, then we can meet the needs of boys and girls across this state. We can reduce the dropout rate by 50 percent over the next five years and raise student achievement to the national average in seven years.

The second lesson I learned is that we can’t do it alone. Recovering from Katrina took local, state and federal governments working together. The business community has played, and continues to play, an integral role in the recovery process for our schools. It took superintendents, teachers, parents and students working side-by-side with a tenacious spirit to accomplish a common goal.

The support for our schools that was demonstrated by these partnerships throughout the year is exactly the kind of support schools across the state need to increase student achievement to the national average.

On August 30, there were many, myself included, that thought it would be months and months before we would be able to reopen the schools. If there is one silver lining to Katrina, it is that the storm helped us to redefine what is possible and to think less of what we have done and more of what must be done.

Dr. Hank M. Bounds

State Superintendent of Education