While Houstonians welcomed 75,000 evacuees into the community, the most of any U.S. city, many parents were concerned about how the city's schools could effectively serve their own children in addition to thousands of new students.
Based on research conducted by University of Houston economics professors Scott Imberman and Adriana Kugler, and Dartmouth professor Bruce Sacerdote, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) effectively addressed these concerns.
The three professors focused on the impact 5,000 evacuee students had on their HISD classmates and learning environments in the paper "Katrina's Children: Evidence on the Structure of Peer Effects from Hurricane Evacuees."
Using academic data and administrative records from HISD and Louisiana school districts from 2004 - 2007, the researchers observed the impact of evacuee students on Houston students' behavior, academic performance and attendance, as well as on HISD resources. Interviews also were conducted with teachers and administrators.
"Since most of the relocated students came from historically low-performing school districts, there were concerns that they would negatively impact their new peers," said Kugler, UH professor of economics. "Some Houston parents were worried that these new students would be disruptive, and that they would limit the academic growth of their children."
Kugler and her colleagues found that there was little academic disruption from the evacuee students. Only elementary school math scores took a dip. Across the school district, however, test scores remained consistent with those prior to the evacuees' arrival.
The study also examined the positive and negative peer influences of evacuee students. Examining HISD, school-by-school, and using student academic data, they observed patterns in which high performing evacuee students had a positive impact on HISD students. Conversely, the professors also documented the negative impact of low-performing evacuees on HISD students. Researchers found the negative and positive effects were balanced, and the evacuees did not directly affect learning or performance.
Likewise, Imberman, Kugler and Sacerdote found that evacuee students had little impact on class sizes or resources due to federal assistance such as the Hurricane Education Recovery Act, which provided funds to school districts.
"There was no drain of resources. Teachers responded to the needs of both the evacuees and Houston students, and new teachers with similar qualifications were hired as well, so the quality of teaching did not suffer when these students arrived." Kugler said.
Behaviorally, however, the study supported the "bad apple" model of peer effects, which suggests that the presence of troublesome students can adversely affect discipline and/or attendance. Their data analysis confirmed what teachers and administrators expressed during interviews. They found that evacuee students in elementary schools were more likely to rebuke teachers, and HISD students often imitated such behavior. Also, attendance rates in middle school and high school decreased with the arrival of evacuees, who often had substantial absences.
Behavioral findings aside, the three researchers conclude that HISD handled the challenging transition of evacuee students into Houston schools effectively and expertly.
"Our findings suggest that, although many feared a large negative impact, HISD did a very good job in managing this situation," Kugler said. "HISD should be commended for not only facilitating the needs of those who were challenged by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but for its continued service to the many Houston students."