Tuesday, September 1, 2015

School Systems Need a Disaster Response Plan

What happens to a city when “the big one” hits? Depending on where you live, the big one could be a flood, a tornado, a hurricane. For me, it looks like it’s going to be an earthquake, at least that’s what a recent scary New Yorker article says as it lists a parade of horribles that could follow a past-due massive quake in Seattle. In the days following the article’s publication, there was a mad rush for earthquake supplies. In the face of uncertainty, yet inevitability, people’s focus turned toward preparation.


When I was in elementary school back in the 80s-90s in Houston, the big one was a hurricane, which included tornadoes and flash floods. Schools taught us in a 101, cookie-cutter way what to do when disaster hits: get under your desk, find a stairwell, stay away from the windows. We readied with flashlights and were told to go home and fill our bathtubs. Looking back, that probably would have helped us in the immediate hours and days following the storm. But if the storm was really big, what would have happened over the ensuing weeks and months, when the effects of disasters are harder to predict and the solutions less clear? I wonder how our school district would have handled extended closures and the displaced students and teachers, all aftershocks of disaster. As this year’s devastating earthquake in Nepal demonstrated, the challenges of returning children to school once the dust has settled but the rubble remains are formidable. According to a UNICEF representative, children who are out of school for prolonged periods of time following a disaster are less likely to ever return to the classroom.

These thoughts are especially prevalent on my mind this week—ten years since Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods ravaged New Orleans. Soon into the aftermath it became clear that neither the city, nor the state, nor the federal government had a set plan for recovery. They had to rebuild many institutions nearly from scratch; the public schools were closed for a year. Remarkably, New Orleans has proven resilient in many ways. One of those areas is its school system. The portfolio strategy, implemented in the wake of the disaster, enabled New Orleans to harness a group of committed leaders and educators, coordinate across education sectors, equalize funding, heighten expectations, and improve outcomes for students.

At CRPE, we’re fond of reminding people that the portfolio strategy is not a set of prescribed principles, but rather a problem-solving strategy. Although we usually think of portfolio as a response to internal disaster-like situations, such as large opportunity gaps between student groups, severe enrollment drops, too many “failed schools,” or abysmal graduation rates, New Orleans is a unique example of the portfolio strategy in action as a response to external disaster.

After Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) knew it had to find better ways to help cities recover after disasters. In September 2009, FEMA worked with over 20 federal departments, agencies, and offices to create guiding principles for recovery organizations. The group received over 6,000 comments from stakeholders across the country and settled on nine principles that underpin any successful disaster recovery. I’m struck by the ways these principles parallel the seven components of the portfolio strategy.


Portfolio and FEMA principles are not completely congruent. While portfolio is meant to be a nimble performance management system that fosters continuous improvement, it wasn’t deliberately intended to respond to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Any portfolio city would need to do pre-disaster planning; for example, how to access student data from afar, keep curriculum rolling, keep in contact with the families affected, and so on.

If a city wishes to get the jump on the next “big one” and how it might affect education, it should convene city and district leadership—including portfolio managers—to discuss disaster preparedness, response, and relief in these terms. It should think carefully about how to adopt these FEMA principles into their structure. Presumably, the more a school system builds these principles into its model, the better off it’ll be in the face of disaster.

While site-based decision making is a feature present in both the FEMA principles and the portfolio strategy, centralized coordination in both approaches is still needed for certain tasks. Regardless of whether we’re in the normal day-to-day or disaster relief, schools are not in the best position to coordinate with one another, to set city-wide priorities (e.g., which neighborhoods most need new schools), to make agreements with other agencies, providers, and levels of government, to harness city-based emergency interventions for schools (such as distributing the police force, fire department, health services, etc., to areas that need them the most). There is still a need for a central role. The trick is to employ the central role without overgrowing central office and disempowering schools.

Now, with a portfolio strategy in place, if disaster were to strike again, New Orleans’ system of schools would be much better positioned to recover. The city has hundreds of empowered principals and leaders, with a multitude of independent providers, all enabled to make ground-level decisions for and with their community. They don’t depend exclusively on centralized bureaucracy for direction, but they do enjoy centralized coordination. At its heart, the portfolio strategy provides a way for education systems to find and maintain their resilience, something it shouldn’t take a disaster to unleash.

Wed, 12/01/2021

As health and safety concerns recede, districts are under pressure to provide fewer days and hours of student-teacher contact than before the pandemic.

Mon, 11/15/2021

Use the Canopy project interactive data portal to search for innovative schools by region, level, focus, and more.

Thu, 10/28/2021

Three new policy memos provide recommendations to start a discussion about how state leaders can ensure these shifts lead to better teaching, learning, engagement, and well-being for students.