School Climate & Safety

Puerto Rican Students Displaced by Storm Adjust to Mainland Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — February 12, 2018 9 min read
Diego Ignacio Cordero Sanchez, 16, left, and Lorenzo Alberto Cordero Sanchez, 15, with their dad Giovanni Cordero in Homestead, Fla. The boys came to Florida after Hurricane Maria to attend school.
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The flow of students from Puerto Rico has slowed in recent weeks, but mainland schools continue to take in new evacuees five months after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

In parts of the country with large Puerto Rican communities, districts are still hiring bilingual staff, monitoring students closely for signs of trauma, reconfiguring classrooms, tinkering with their budgets, and hoping that state education departments cough up more money to help cover the unexpected costs.

In Florida, which has taken in the largest number of Puerto Rican evacuees to date, educators are grappling with needs large and small, including ensuring that high school students who may have spent months outside of the classroom are on track to graduate at the end of the school year. Some 11,000 evacuees from the U.S. territory were attending the state’s public schools at the end of January. Florida schools also have taken in more than 900 students from the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were pummeled by hurricanes Irma and Maria in a span of 14 days last year.

In the western Massachusetts city of Holyoke, where nearly half the resident population is Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent, the 5,300-student district has hired up to seven staff members—some of whom are evacuees—to help students and their parents navigate a school system that may seem foreign to them.

And nearby West Springfield, a 4,000-student district that’s been growing, has used about $175,000 from its school choice fund to add seven staffers, including two special education teachers, to attend to the needs of the 75 Puerto Rican students who are currently registered.

Where Are They?

Public schools in Florida had enrolled 11,439 Puerto Rican evacuees by the end of January.
Hover to see how many Puerto Rican evacuees are enrolled in each district.

Source: Education Week Research Center analysis of CCD and Florida Department of Education Data, 2018. Reporter: Denisa Superville. Analysis and Visualization: Laura Baker and Alex Harwin.

Note: The data were reported by the school districts and may include students who have transferred from one district to another.

“They are struggling with constant change,” said West Springfield Superintendent Michael J. Richard. “Their needs are great, and we are trying to identify them.”

Unlike Holyoke, West Springfield does not have a large Hispanic population, and the evacuees enrolling in the district are staying in temporary housing at nearby hotels. This creates an added layer of uncertainty for the district as it weighs accommodating the needs of families and students who may not be around in a few months.

An additional challenge for Richard and others in his position is determining the placement of students who arrive on the mainland without education records. Nearly 75 percent of the evacuees who are enrolled in West Springfield schools are in special education programs because they had an individualized education program, or IEP, or because their parents told district officials that their children had been in special education programs in Puerto Rico.

Funding Uncertainties

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, plans to provide $15 million in additional funding for districts serving the nearly 2,500 evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As a result, Holyoke could receive about $6,000 per student, said Stephen Zrike, who the state appointed as the district superintendent in 2015 after years of sluggish academic performance and low graduation rates.

The state had previously split a $60,000 grant under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act among the districts that had enrolled the largest number of evacuees, which came to about $5,000 per district, Zrike said.

Complete Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

But Holyoke is not letting the availability of state aid determine its response, he added.

“Our approach is that we are going to do what we need to do to ensure that once they [arrive], they are going to get to school as soon as possible,” Zrike said. “We are going to be flexible.”

If the influx continues, Zrike’s wish list includes Spanish-language books, teachers, counselors, and help for the homeless-assistance coordinator whose caseload has ballooned.

Holyoke had registered nearly 200 Puerto Rican students by the end of January, though a smaller number of students, 182, are actually in the system. The district allowed the newcomer students to attend the schools in their neighborhoods to minimize disruptions and avoid busing them to unfamiliar neighborhoods. While that decision has its advantages, it also means that grades in some schools are nearing capacity, officials said.

Language Support

A Newcomer Academy at Holyoke High School, which opened at the beginning of the school year, has been providing small-group instruction to high school students with limited proficiency in English. Students have a double-block of English instruction by a certified English-language-learner teacher, while continuing their core courses in Spanish. Barbara Page, the Newcomer Academy lead, plans to team up with tutors from local colleges over spring break to provide intensive tutoring for high school seniors worried about passing state exams.

“It’s a big problem,” Page said of the uncertainty seniors feel about whether they will graduate on time. “We don’t want these students to be penalized for a natural disaster that hit their island.”

Housing remains the biggest challenge for families and the greatest source of instability for students, who may be forced to move from school to school as their parents’ housing situation changes.

While many families are doubled up with relatives, about 600 families were staying in hotels and using time-limited vouchers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the cost of housing, said Betty Medina Lichtenstein, the executive director of Enlace de Familias, the point-organization for Puerto Rican evacuees heading to western Massachusetts. Many are set to lose those benefits this week, she said.

A number of parents also do not speak English, which makes it difficult to immediately find well-paying jobs. And rental apartments are expensive in western Massachusetts.

Frustrated by the slow pace of progress and the level of disaster assistance they are receiving, some families have decided to return to Puerto Rico. The stress is tearing families apart, Medina Lichtenstein said.

“I don’t think that the parents or the children are really taking care of their own mental health,” said Medina Lichtenstein, whose organization has helped about 2,000 individuals from Puerto Rico. “The children are also on autopilot.”

Families Reunited

But the hurricane and the unplanned exodus from Puerto Rico has reunited some families, even as the children struggle to adjust.

Madeline Castañer has now settled in Holyoke with her husband, Julio Robles, who had left Jayuya, in Puerto Rico, just days before the hurricane. With Robles already on the mainland, it was easy to decide to leave after Maria struck the island and destroyed the family’s home.

But after Castañer joined Robles last December, their 7-year-old daughter, Juleyska Robles Castañer, dreaded going to school, mainly because she didn’t understand the language, her mother said.

Castañer credits the staff at Morgan Elementary School with helping the 1st grader work through her anxiety. A kindergarten teacher who speaks Spanish took Juleyska aside in the initial days to offer reassurance whenever she started to get anxious, and reviewed class material with the young girl to help her keep up with her studies. A bilingual classmate also spoke to Juleyska in Spanish to help her feel comfortable in her new surrounding.

Weeks later, Juleyska is learning English and making progress, her mother said. While she would like Juleyska to have more classes in Spanish, Castañer said she appreciated the school’s efforts to make her daughter’s transition a little smoother.

“She feels better that someone is looking out for her,” her mother said.

In the Miami suburb of Homestead, Hurricane Maria also led to a reunion between a father and his sons.

Diego Ignacio Cordero Sanchez, 16, started the year as he had many others at La Nueva Escuela Juan Ponce de León in Guaynabo, about 20 minutes from San Juan. Diego’s parents had always intended for him to finish high school in Puerto Rico and then move to the mainland to join his father, Giovanni Cordero, who left Puerto Rico three years ago, looking for work.

Hurricane Maria sped up the process.

“We were worried that they were going to lose a year of school,” Cordero said of the rushed effort to evacuate Diego and his younger brother, Lorenzo Alberto Cordero Sanchez, 15. “In order to keep them going—and not fall behind—we had to make the decision.”

By the end of October, the boys were settling into a new three-bedroom home in a planned development that their father had just purchased. Cordero found himself navigating a school system that is very different from the one he was used to in Puerto Rico, where he said one can walk into the school and talk to any teacher about any pressing issue.

The experience was a “roller coaster,” he said, but it helped that the Miami-Dade school district held a community fair to assist evacuee families explore schooling options. Diego is also one of the 50 students that Communities in Schools of Miami, the local affiliate of the national drop-out prevention program, is helping with a $60,000 grant the organization received from the Miami Foundation.

Diego, who is fluent in English, said the new system took some getting used to. Most of his classes in Puerto Rico were in the same room or nearby rooms. At Homestead Senior High School, where he and his brother enrolled, Diego often found himself late as he rushed from class to class.

His grades have not suffered and at the end of January his social studies teacher congratulated him on obtaining one of the highest scores on a quiz about the Great Depression and World War I.

Lorenzo had an easier time making friends, but both boys said they are appreciating the time with their father. Still, Diego misses his mother, Lina Sanchez, who works at a music school and is still in Puerto Rico.

“It’s scary,” he said. “It’s difficult knowing that I am OK here, while she is back there. I definitely miss her a lot. It’s been hard. From that aspect, it’s been hard.”

Frank Zenere, the chairman of the crisis-management department at the Miami-Dade school district, said that he has found that the student evacuees have been quite resilient.

Miami-Dade counselors and teachers have been given a checklist of things to do and to avoid when interacting with their new students.

They are encouraged to: let students know there is a caring adult in the room, give students the opportunity to speak about their experience if they want to, assign a buddy to the new students, and meet with students and families before they enroll.

Zenere, who has spent 20 years helping school districts get back on track after natural disasters, school shootings, and other emergencies, said district teachers were also able to empathize with students.

“It was helpful for many of the kids to understand that they were not in this alone and that this was a community that had a hurricane experience this year—and over the years,” he said. “I think there was a level of empathy that was already built into our teachers [and] counseling staff.”

Education Week Intern Paula Ospina contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as Mainland Schools Continue to Enroll Displaced Students


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