Colorado officials were expecting 1,000 evacuees from the Gulf Coast area, but as of Wednesday had only received around 300, some of whom are being housed in dorms at the former Lowry Air Force base in Denver. More people have come to the state and are staying with relatives. Among those relocating to Colorado are a number of elementary and high school-aged children in search of a classroom. Several have already found a desk at local schools.
The Telluride Mountain School enrolled two students over the weekend.
"We got word they were interested, but it has been very difficult to communicate with folks back there" in New Orleans, said Ernie Patterson, head of school. The boyfriend of one of the student's mothers was the connection for bringing the students and their families to town.
"I think most people have found what they need at this point," said Patterson regarding school accommodations. "Most are staying in the South if they can. Or if they have a connection in another part of the country" they are heading there.
For the thousands of people evacuated from the South, state education departments and private schools have set up methods for enrolling students in nearby schools.
"Through the Association of Colorado Independent Schools and the National Association of Independent Schools there is a clearing house list to indicate whether independent schools have space for kids displaced," said Patterson. The two students enrolled at the Mountain School did not come through that system, but Patterson said the school has listed several openings with the ACIS.
"We have six that have come to us," said Telluride Elementary School principal Steve Smith. "Their grandparents have a home here. They've come for an indefinite period of time." He added that he thinks the students intend to return to New Orleans when that option becomes feasible.
Smith said he had heard that more students may enroll at the school, but "as rumor only. We've not had any confirmation, such as any parents contacting us."
While the elementary school has experienced large increases in its student population this year, Smith said, "If someone lives within our district, we always make room. The good thing is these new students we have are not concentrated in one grade level. That has lessened the impact. We're taking them. It's a good thing."
The Ridgway Elementary School has also enrolled students.
"We enrolled two kids [Tuesday] from the New Orleans area," said Ridgway principal Chris Martin, "one in kindergarten and one in fourth." The students have family in the Ridgway area.
"There's been talk around about families with other members coming in," he said, but he did not know of any new students to expect for sure. "We're required to take them in because they qualify as homeless students," said Martin. "We recently got a memo from the Colorado Department of Education to take those students."
That memo included guidance for the immediate enrollment of students evacuated from the Gulf Coast area and access to school lunch programs, said Karen Connell in a phone interview on Wednesday. Connell is a supervisor with prevention initiatives at the Colorado Department of Education and supervises a federal program for homeless education.
"There is a federal law that protects homeless children in terms of immediate enrollment. They don't need to present proof of residency, transcripts or immunization records," said Connell. "It ensures immediate access to the school food program and any other programs." Evacuees from the Gulf Coast states have been given homeless status to expedite the enrollment process at new schools.
Staff from the CDE are currently working with schools across the state to ensure the smooth enrollment of students evacuated from the hurricane disaster area.
"Aurora and Denver seem to be getting some of the first students," said Connell. "We weren't sure what to expect from around the state," with numbers "depending on family members and friends" of hurricane survivors living in Colorado. "It's difficult to know right now" how many students will need to be placed in Colorado schools.
"With Denver schools, we're trying to find out what they might need," said Connell. "Everything seems to be working right now. The schools are processing them fairly quickly. If we can help at all with local schools, we'd be more than happy to."
The CDE will post information regarding displaced students on their web page, www.cde.state.co.us.