The damage caused by Hurricane Sandy will almost certainly affect public education systems in the mid-Atlantic and northeast. RAND research of the displacement caused by Hurricane Katrina provides important lessons for education officials and policymakers tasked with helping students avoid academic problems as a result of Sandy.
By displacement, we mean situations that require a change of schools. In the case of Katrina, some displaced students exhibited problems such as non-enrollment or poor attendance, mental health or behavioral problems, and academic setbacks.
Among the key findings of our research:
- The negative effects of school displacement may be dominated by two simple factors: how much schooling time is lost and how many school transitions the student experiences.
- Negative achievement effects appear to have been mitigated by students' tendency to enroll in schools with higher student performance than their original schools.
- Ideally, families would relocate to areas with good schools, enroll their children in schools immediately, and minimize subsequent moves that require additional school changes. This is easier said than done. Geography and transportation play major roles in the immediate relocation of disaster victims; the best schools may have limited capacity to accept students; and social, economic, and other factors may compel families to relocate after their first move. These facts, along with counseling and ready access to information about school performance, might help families make decisions that are beneficial to their children.
- An important component in such decision-making is understanding the likely duration of displacement. Principals rated expectations of returning home soon as the factor most likely to affect poor attendance by students. Policymakers should seek ways to disseminate information to help parents form realistic expectations of the duration of the disaster and realize the importance of settling their children in schools quickly and with few transitions. Such information might help parents who recognize that they may be in unsustainable situations, but who are “waiting it out,” make the necessary changes expediently and with a mind toward solutions that can be sustained for the long-term.
If Hurricane Sandy causes extensive disruptions in public schools—particularly in hard-hit New York City—our research shows that choices made by parents and policymakers could significantly limit the negative short-term effects of changing schools under such difficult circumstances.
John F. Pane is a senior information scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and lead author of Effects of Student Displacement in Louisiana During the First Academic Year After the Hurricanes of 2005 (RAND, 2006).
This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on October 31, 2012.