Florida, New York are top destinations for 6,400 students fleeing Puerto Rico

by Cathy Woodruff

On Board Online • November 20, 2017

By Cathy Woodruff
Senior Writer

Hurricane Maria's destructive path across Puerto Rico two months ago has spurred hundreds of families to travel to New York State, where local school districts are hustling to enroll the newly uprooted students and help them feel at home.

How many more will come - and how long they will stay - is anybody's guess. Local school officials in more than a dozen districts contacted by On Board said the only thing they are counting on is that they will need to be prepared for more, as Puerto Rico continues to face shortages of electrical power, running water and critical infrastructure.

"It's such a tragedy, and it's ongoing," said Barbara Nevergold, president of the school board in Buffalo, where she is involved in an expanding local effort to provide backpacks filled with school supplies and other essentials for the young newcomers. "Children could lose a whole year of schooling in Puerto Rico, I suppose, because of the slow pace of the recovery."

Puerto Rican authorities estimated that by early November more than 6,400 elementary and secondary students had traveled to the U.S. mainland to escape the devastation, including 679 students going to New York. Florida was the only destination more common, with at least 4,631 students headed there.

FEMA officials announced on Nov. 9 that the federal government would begin offering airlifts to carry Puerto Ricans still stuck in shelters to temporary housing in Florida and New York. Growing availability of seats on commercial flights is also expected to help more people join friends and relatives on the mainland.

On Nov. 6, Puerto Rico's education secretary, Julia Keleher, said her department was working to create a new web portal to facilitate the electronic transmittal of student transcripts to transfer schools.

To accommodate teachers from Puerto Rico, the New York State Board of Regents is making non-renewable state teaching certificates available.

Many of the students streaming into New York will join relatives in New York City, which has a Puerto Rican population estimated at nearly 700,000. Elsewhere in the Empire State, family and friendship ties also are drawing students seeking to continue their education while the rebuilding effort gets underway at home.

One family's story

On Board visited the Amsterdam Central School District in Fulton County on a day when a newly arrived Puerto Rican family was enrolling two teenagers in Amsterdam High School.

"It was not a good scenario," Jenia Bruno Sanchez, 35, said with understatement about the conditions her family found at their mountainside home near the small city of Caguas, south of San Juan, after Maria tore through.

Jenia and her husband, Eduardo Brito Lopez, 36, rode out the storm with their children Sarah Brito Bruno, 16, and Fabian Brito Bruno, 14, in the home of Jenia's sister in Caguas, along with other relatives. After braving a two-hour walk along a muddy, debris-strewn road to check on their home, they found it too badly damaged to inhabit, lacking electricity, running water and other essentials.

They packed up what necessities and treasures they could salvage - including Sarah's guitar and artwork - and caught a flight to the mainland.

Now, the family is staying with their longtime friend Brenda Diaz and her family, who have lived in the former mill city of Amsterdam since 2012.

The family already had planned to visit Amsterdam, and the hurricane cemented a plan to stay for a while. Eduardo, a mechanic, and Jenia, who worked as a legal secretary, scheduled local job interviews within a week of their arrival.

Sarah and Fabian were home-schooled in Puerto Rico. Sarah acknowledged that she's apprehensive about attending classes taught in English at a new school. She also misses her friends.

"I'm kind-of nervous, because I am a new kid," Sarah said. "I didn't expect it to be this hard, but this is a life experience . It won't be forever."

At least initially, Sarah and Fabian will receive academic support services from the district's ENL (English as a New Language) teachers, said Nancy Rad, Amsterdam's community schools coordinator. Sarah's conversational English suggests she and her brother may have a head start on many new students who haven't spoken as much English at home, Rad said.

Amsterdam has been a popular destination for Puerto Rican families moving to the mainland for decades, in part because of its history as a factory town. About 43 percent - or 1,600 - of the school district's students are of Hispanic descent, which includes students with family roots in Puerto Rico. About 4 percent (161 students) are considered English language learners.

Amsterdam has enrolled about 29 new students from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit. "We anticipate more, as families are letting us know they are expecting more family members to arrive after them," said Superintendent Vicky Ramos.

Challenges for schools

The effects of the new arrivals on Amsterdam schools mirror the challenges facing many schools in the state that have dealt with influxes of immigrants and refugees.

The arrivals will intensify an already-recognized need to add at least one, and possibly two teachers who specialize in ENL instruction to the 11 already in place in Amsterdam.

"We are a district that has needed ENL instruction for years," Ramos said. "We increased our ENL allocation for this upcoming year as we were looking at trend data, not knowing we would have the hurricane impact to also affect our enrollment."

Local school officials say their work with incoming students from Puerto Rico - and other hurricane-ravaged regions including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Texas and Florida - has extended far beyond assessing academic readiness and supports. They're also looking to help address needs that encompass social services, health care, mental health treatment and basic supplies for life: personal hygiene items, clothing, furniture, food and more.

Many of the young new comers have been traumatized by the loss of homes and possessions and by separations from friends and family. And the onset of winter in the Northeast brings an urgent need for hats, gloves, heavy jackets and other cold-weather attire.

"One of the biggest adjustments they will have to make is the climate," noted Amsterdam School Board President Nellie Bush, who commended families for braving such difficulties to support their children's education and wellbeing.

Many school districts are finding solid partners in local Latino organizations and other non-profit agencies. Those organizations include Centro Civico in Amsterdam, The Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York in Buffalo, and the Hispanic Community Council in Chautauqua County.

Recruiting bilingual personnel

Outside of New York City, Rochester is the New York district that has seen the largest influx of students from Puerto Rico - more than 150 by the end of October.

"We have students and families coming in, literally, every day," said Ray DeMartino, Rochester's chief accountability officer.

The Rochester district is participating in an interagency task force that brings together an array of specialized staff and administrators with representatives from community agencies to help identify and address the immediate needs of students and families as they arrive.

"We are heavily recruiting bilingual personnel," said DeMartino. "Because we have such a high bilingual population, we have a need to maintain high levels of such personnel and we want to be sure we are not in a reactive mode."

Thanks to a pre-hurricane recruiting trip to Puerto Rico by Buffalo's human resources director, nine new bilingual teachers from Puerto Rico already were on staff there this September.

Nevergold, the school board president, said a backpack initiative for arriving students in Buffalo has been organized by the Amherst Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a national sorority, and a Buffalo non-profit called The Teacher's Desk, which provides free school supplies.

"It's a small thing, but we know the trauma that these children have experienced," said Nevergold. "They are coming here with very little or nothing, and a backpack can be very meaningful." She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, which was founded in 1908 on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C.

As they conduct routine placement screenings, local school officials are finding that the educational needs of the incoming students vary widely. While the destination districts usually have programs for Spanish-speaking students in place already, some are looking to add teachers and staff with multi-lingual skills and experience.

In Chautauqua County, the Dunkirk and Jamestown districts have emerged as major post-Hurricane Maria destinations. Both communities have well-established Latino communities, thanks to historical factors that include the availability of agricultural and industrial jobs.

More than half of Dunkirk's students are of Hispanic descent, with a majority from Puerto Rico, said Connie Meginnis, director of ENL and bilingual education. In Jamestown, about 20 percent of students are Hispanic, including those from Puerto Rican families, according to state data.

Both districts are reviewing existing resources and considering what enhancements may be needed.

In Jamestown, an intergenerational literacy program called "After School Amigos" is available for new students and their families. Dunkirk has sent home fliers expressing sympathy for people and communities affected by recent hurricanes and asking local families to help the district anticipate new arrivals.

"A primary goal of the Jamestown City School District is to provide a welcoming, caring and safe place for any student who might come into our schools, regardless of the circumstances," said Jamestown Superintendent Bret Apthorpe.

Yonkers Superintendent Edwin M. Quezada also stressed caring and community as students arrive from Puerto Rico and other places hit hard by hurricanes and natural disasters.

"When we are dealing with families and children coming to us after a traumatic experience, it begins with re-educating our staff and reminding everyone to be attentive," Quezada said. "Our professional learning community is ready to embrace these children."

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