Sue Ann Payne thought she was retired.
Having worked as an educator for more than 40 years, she thought this fall would finally be her time to relax.
But Hurricane Katrina struck, and Payne got one of the most challenging assignments of her career: become the principal of a school reopening in Houston that would be filled entirely with evacuees.
Last week, Payne got a call on a Tuesday telling her that Houston Independent School District wanted to reopen Douglass Elementary school — a school that had been closed last year because the population was dwindling. Two days later, Payne had a staff comprised of retired, substitute and displaced teachers, sparkling clean hallways with bright yellow lockers, a library stocked with 20,000 donated books, and a few hundred brand new students.
"It's a wonderful assignment and I love it," Payne said. "If they need me for a year, I'll do it — whatever it takes."
Payne is one of hundreds meeting the challenge of educating what could be as many as 400,000 students who have been displaced from schools in Louisiana and Mississippi after the hurricane, according to Susan Aspey, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. While enrollment figures are constantly changing as evacuees search for more permanent housing, at least 28 states and Washington, D.C., have classrooms that are teaching children displaced by Katrina.
School districts like Houston have stepped up to meet the challenge, identifying space for about 14,000 students, said Norm Uhl, assistant press secretary for the school district.
"The community is all for getting these kids and putting them back in school," Uhl said. "It gives them the only sense of normalcy that they've had all day. It's really good to get these kids back in an environment that is familiar to them — a classroom, a blackboard and a teacher."
Until Aug. 29, Danyell Schulze taught sixth grade at Alice Hart Elementary School in New Orleans. Schulze and her husband evacuated to Houston, and now she is teaching a class of fourth graders — evacuees staying at the Astrodome and Reliant Arena — at Douglass Elementary.
"I think it's important that I've been here for them," Schulze said. "That they have someone that understands their situation, who sounds like them and has their accent. It's all about relating."
In the months following the storm, integrating school children into a regular routine, especially at school, will be crucial, said Catherine Tamis-Lemonda, a professor of applied psychology at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.
"These children have been robbed of dependability," Tamis-Lemonda said. "In the face of chaos, there is a need to have children look at what is consistent in their lives."