After the Storm, It’s Finally the First Day of School in Houston

HOUSTON — Kacey Cartwright and his family lost their home during Hurricane Harvey, spent a few difficult nights sheltered at a convention center and are now living in a hotel far from their old neighborhood. So the first day of school here on Monday was a welcome respite.

“It takes my mind off of everything that’s going on,” said Kacey, who is 16, a junior at Wheatley High School and a lineman on the football team. Last week, he picked up some donated clothes from the school gym after losing most of his possessions in the storm. “I get to see my friends and go to practice and just escape reality.”

On Monday, about 80 percent of the Houston Independent School District’s 287 schools opened after a two-week delay caused by the storm that drenched this region in late August. Most of the other schools are slated to reopen for classes later this month.

This district serves about 215,000 students across a vast 312 square miles, and saw an estimated $700 million in costs and damage, including swamped classrooms, soaked drywall and computers that might not work. Still, a remarkably speedy recovery appeared to be underway here on Monday, suggesting that the school system may be able to avoid the extent of upheaval and tumult that teachers and students in New Orleans experienced after Hurricane Katrina.

A social worker, Brittney Matthews, second from left, helped Wheatley students find their classroom assignments on Monday. CreditIlana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

An anticipated exodus of Houston students to public schools in other big cities — Dallas and Austin — has so far not occurred. As of Monday morning, the Dallas Independent School District said it had enrolled 220 evacuated children. It appeared that although many Houston families remained out of their swamped homes, they were lodging with friends and relatives across the Houston region.

“To be online two weeks after Harvey hit is just amazing,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Still, big challenges remain. Nine campuses with the worst damage will be moved to vacant properties or will share space with other schools. By this week, some buildings were still being assessed for safety — leaving thousands of parents unsure when their children would be back in a classroom, or where that classroom might be. And 270 teachers have been unable to go to work because of damage to their own homes or other disruptions after the storm, school officials said.

School officials have distributed thousands of free uniforms to families who lost school supplies in damaged homes, and announced that all students would receive three free meals a day for the duration of the school year, regardless of family income. Richard A. Carranza, the Houston schools superintendent, who formerly led the San Francisco school system, secured a $1 million donation for recovery efforts from Marc Benioff, a Silicon Valley philanthropist and the founder of Salesforce.com.

Monday looked in many ways like any other first day in Houston: Crossing guards stood on the corners, parents hugged their children, students chatted with friends and found their names on class assignment lists.

At Wheatley, a high school that is northeast of downtown Houston, the principal, Shirley A. Rose-Gilliam, greeted upperclassmen by name and directed traffic in the halls. She said she had been unsure how many students to expect. In the end, she was relieved. More students were at school on Monday, she said, than on any first day in her four-year tenure here.

A drop-off in enrollment could have led to a decrease in state funding and potential reassignment for teachers at a time when the school is already under scrutiny. Wheatley, whose student body is about half Hispanic, half African-American and 70 percent low-income, is in its sixth year with “improvement required” status. If test scores and graduation rates do not go up, the school could be shut down by the state.

“We’re working to get the scores where they need to get to, but at the same time, it’s not necessarily about scores,” Dr. Rose-Gilliam said. She said she was encouraging teachers to discuss the flooding in their classes, and urged her staff to help displaced students access counseling, clothing and even toiletries.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago, most New Orleans public schools remained closed for more than four months. The State of Louisiana took over most New Orleans public schools, instituting changes that created the nation’s first so-called “portfolio” school district, in which the majority of schools are independently managed charter schools. Gains in test scores and the high school graduation rate followed, yet the overhaul started a fierce, ongoing debate about how to balance education reform efforts with community control of schools. Thousands of experienced African-American educators with deep roots in New Orleans were replaced by a movement of largely young, white teachers from outside.