Research Magazine 2006

Study examines displaced students in local schools

When Hurricane Katrina forced massive evacuations from Louisiana and Mississippi, thousands of uprooted school children landed in Texas.

In a groundbreaking study, three UT Arlington professors want to learn what impact Katrina had on Fort Worth-Dallas school districts, which absorbed nearly 7,000 survivors.

The research, a joint project between the School of Urban and Public Affairs and the College of Education, is the only study of its kind being funded by the education and human services branch of the National Science Foundation. 

It was inspired by SUPA Associate Professor Edith Barrett, whose research focuses on adolescents in poverty.

“Typically, when adolescents are put in stressful situations, the kids who get some kind of support system are the ones most likely to make it,” Dr. Barrett said. “What intrigued me about Katrina students was here was a group of children who were suddenly in a situation where all their support networks were gone.”

The 18-month study addresses middle and high school students and examines four areas: the characteristics (economic background, family structure, race and ethnicity) of the adolescents evacuated into the Fort Worth metropolitan area; how the students did academically, socially and psychologically (and how that changed over time); the response by public, private and parochial schools and any changes made (including how the leadership behavior and perceptions of the principals, teachers and social agencies affected that response); and the reaction of the receiving community, in this case the neighbors, volunteer organizations, homeowners, media, churches and local government institutions.

Working the administrative side of the survey is Carrie Ausbrooks, assistant professor in the College of Education.

“Principals shape the system that determines how schools function and how people within them interact,” Dr. Ausbrooks said. “The study will examine whether there were changes in policies and practices of the school, how well the Katrina students were accepted into the school, and whether their personal, cultural and educational values were different from those of the teachers, students, administrators and families that were already there.”

SUPA Assistant Professor Maria Martinez-Cosio is studying what happened socially to the students and their families.  “What did the schools do to try to attenuate the damage these students went through? And what made a difference for them? Was it a principal, fellow peer or social service agency?”

Dr. Martinez-Cosio adds that looking at low-, middle- and higher-income school districts will also help determine if there was a difference in response across class and race issues.

“If you look at the literature, we know how to help refugees and immigrant children with issues like underachievement and language barriers,” she said. “But we don’t know a lot about kids who are displaced within our own country. So we’re really adding to that literature.”

The researchers would like to create a document of best practices based on their findings to guide school districts in handling other crisis situations.

“The school districts are inventing the wheel through this whole process of absorbing these displaced students,” Martinez-Cosio said. “So for them to try and figure out what they did well, and what didn’t work so well, is invaluable.”

— Susan M. Slupecki