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In Harvey's Wake

Students in towns hardest hit by Harvey are still in the eye of the storm

Extended school closures have raised concerns about how students will catch up as Texas recovers from its worst natural disaster.

By Moriah Balingit, The Washington Post
A school in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District northwest of Houston still surrounded by water on Wednesday Aug 30, 2017.

In Harvey's Wake

The devastation was swift, and the recovery is far from over. Sign up for our ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey's aftermath. 

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ARANSAS PASS — This should be Yahaira Montemayor’s fourth week in school. Instead, the 7-year-old whiles away her days at her grandmother’s house and spends her nights huddled in a single bed with her mother and three siblings.

While other students across Texas sit in classrooms, 13-year-old Raul Fuentes helps his mother clean tables at the taqueria where she works as a waitress.

Jordan Martin, who should have started his senior year in high school, lives in a camper anchored to his football coach’s driveway.

Hundreds of students languish at home, still out of school weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in coastal Texas, sundering even sturdy school buildings. The storm sliced off rooftop air-conditioning units and ripped holes in roofs, allowing rainwater to gush inside. It felled trees, toppled stadium lights and turned hallways and science labs into lakes.

Five school districts north of Corpus Christi remain shuttered, and two of them are not expected to open until mid-October — or later, if contractors diagnose unanticipated damage or cannot find supplies.

The extended closures have raised concerns about how students will catch up as the state recovers from its worst natural disaster. Then there are money concerns: How will school districts fare when they confront the cost of rebuilding and the potential loss of state money if enrollment drops?

Children from some of the hardest-hit communities — Rockport, Aransas Pass and Port Aransas — streamed into schools in neighboring towns to register, anxious to get back into the classroom. But many of those schools are running out of room.

Tabatha Castro brought her 5-year-old twins, Christian and Skyler, to the central office of the Gregory-Portland Independent School District — not far from where she was staying in Rockport — hoping to register them for kindergarten. Their school, Little Bay Primary in Rockport, is not expected to open until next month.

“Their education is everything,” said Castro, whose son Christian needs speech therapy. “They want to go back to school.”

The school receptionist turned them away, telling them there was no room. Castro was disheartened. She was too fearful to send them to a school farther away, worried they would get scared and wander away from campus.

There have been other barriers: Aransas Pass only recently began providing a school bus to ferry children to schools in a neighboring district; before, children had to get there on their own.

Karla Montemayor wished her daughter Yahaira could return to school in the Gregory-Portland district, but she had no way of getting her there until the bus started running. Now, it was too late — the schools had filled up.

“She has to study . . . so she doesn’t fall behind,” Montemayor said.

The Gregory-Portland district, which was spared the brunt of the storm, reopened within days. Since then, its enrollment has exploded from about 4,500 students to nearly 6,300 — a 40 percent increase. Most of those students came from Rockport, which was walloped by Harvey.

As the hurricane made landfall near Corpus Christi — where tourism and shrimping are mainstay industries — it packed winds of more than 100 mph. Streets once lined with lush oak trees are now filled with gnarled branches and debris. Mobile-home parks have been reduced to rubble. Many hotels and restaurants sit closed. The water tower in Aransas Pass came crashing to the ground.

Many of Aransas Pass’s school buildings lost rooftop air-conditioning units, peeled off by high winds. The air conditioners then stamped holes in the roof as they bounced to the ground. Drenching rain soaked carpets and ceiling tiles, ruined papers and spawned hazardous mold. At A.C. Blunt Junior High, the library collection that took generations to build was soaked and will have to be replaced.

“When this devastation came about — gosh, it hit us hard,” said Mark Kemp, superintendent of the Aransas Pass Independent School District, which will not open before Oct. 16. He has encouraged students to enroll elsewhere until he can reopen schools. “We are Panther nation,” he said. “We love our athletes. We love our academia. We love our community.”

Teachers have been displaced, too. Some returned to homes left uninhabitable and now live in campers in a nearby state park that offered a free place for the hurricane homeless to stay.

Principal Jason Mansfield, who oversees the Faulk Early Childhood School and Kieberger Elementary in Aransas Pass, came back to find air conditioners had tumbled onto the elementary school’s front lawn. As he surveyed the destruction, he wondered what to do next.

“There’s no playbook for this,” Mansfield said. “There’s nothing out there, so you’re sort of shooting from the hip and making some mistakes and trying to figure out how to do it all.”

Mansfield said it is unclear how — or whether — the district will make up lost days. He plans to have teachers double up on the curriculum, cramming twice as many lessons into a school week. But if too many students fail standardized tests, the school could face state intervention.

“The whole curriculum for the year is sort of like a domino set, and if you’re missing the domino the whole thing falls apart,” Mansfield said. “A lot of these kids have lost everything ... and you’re going to be rushing them through a curriculum to get them ready for a standardized test. There’s a lot of emotional needs outside of the classroom right now.”

Experts say the poorest students tend to suffer disproportionately the consequences of natural disasters. “This is the kind of thing that can actually exacerbate an achievement gap,” said Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, an advocacy group that works on school attendance issues.

The prolonged closure of schools has also delivered a psychological blow to these towns, where Friday-night football is a sacred ritual and families spend generations in the same communities, going to the same schools.

Lee Ramos, a 17-year-old who was supposed to start his junior year at Aransas Pass High before the storm crashed in, said he could never enroll in another school: “I’m not a traitor.”

The University Interscholastic League, which governs high school sports in the state, is allowing students forced to enroll in neighboring districts to keep playing for their home teams. In the wake of the storm, maintaining school pride has been nearly as critical as repairing school buildings — and football games may prove an important morale booster.

At Gregory-Portland High, more than 550 new students have arrived from communities devastated by the storm, and many are not eager to adopt new school colors or a new mascot. As the school enrolled new students by the hour, teens said some classrooms were so full their classmates were forced to stand. The school has brought on more teachers — some from the districts that remained closed — and created new classes to alleviate crowding.

The high school has tried to be a welcoming host. At a raucous pep rally last week, it allowed the cheerleading squad from Rockport-Fulton High, in their green uniforms, to perform alongside Gregory-Portland’s cheerleaders, clad in red. The Gregory-Portland band even learned Rockport-Fulton’s fight song, and its cheerleaders retooled their signature cheer. “Go Rockport! Fulton!” they bellowed.

Ryan Knostman, the athletic director and head football coach at Aransas Pass High, started football practice a week after the hurricane blew through — after a contractor used magnetic rollers to dislodge debris embedded in the grass. Many of the team’s 90 players have returned to town, and last week they ran plays while contractors framed a new press box above the stadium to replace the one blown away by the storm.

When practices started two weeks ago, Knostman said, his eyes filled with tears as he watched 40 players — less than half of the full roster — take the field.

“For a split second,” Knostman said, “it was like everything was back to normal, where nothing bad had happened.”

Even with schoolhouses closed, the school community has been a critical lifeline for students. Aransas Pass High’s air-conditioned field house remains open — one of the few structures on the campus safe for students to enter — and last week hallways were lined with canned goods and a sign that read “TAKE WHAT YOU NEED.” Knostman has been feeding his players breakfast, lunch and dinner because he knows some rely on school meals. Donated backpacks bursting with school supplies and cleaning products were available, too.

For Jordan Martin, 18, the school may have saved his life. His parents are disabled — his father has a brain tumor and his mother has back problems — and they could not afford to evacuate until a classmate’s family gave him money to get them out. But they had to leave behind the camper that was home.

Martin returned to find the camper on its side, split open. It was unsalvageable. Knostman had told his players to get in touch if they needed anything, so Martin reached out: My family needs a home, he told Knostman.

Another coach lent Martin’s family a camper and parked it in the driveway of Knostman’s home.

Friday, the Aransas Pass Panthers took the field against Taft High, another school closed by the storm. At halftime, the Panthers were down two touchdowns, and Martin looked up in the stands to see fans deflated. In the second half, the team surged back, winning the game by four points.

“With that win, I feel like it made everyone realize we’re going to be okay,” Martin said. “We’re going to get through it.”

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