In the wake of a devastating hurricane, city public schools have taken in 50 students, and counting, from Puerto Rico.
The schools have become an entry point for victims of Hurricane Maria, a catastrophic storm that ransacked the island, as the Board of Education has extended its longstanding open-door policy to these latest entrants. At several schools, across all grades, teachers are helping to restore some routine to children’s lives, while coordinating care for the rest of the family. And the Harp administration has convened a task force, headed by emergency management chief Rick Fontana, to help families resettle here.
“We’re the Statue of Liberty,” said Danny Diaz, the district’s parent engagement coordinator who’s been managing the school district’s response.
That welcome resonates at throughout Fair Haven School, an elementary and middle school that has enrolled 16 students from Puerto Rico since the storm. The 900-member student body is used to new kids showing up in class, whether they’re Honduran migrants, Syrian refugees or Mexican earthquake victims.
When a child from Puerto Rico, an American territory in the Caribbean, arrives at Fair Haven School, the staff immediately conducts an intake assessment: How strong was their schooling back home? How strong are their reading skills in Spanish? What immunizations and other health check-ups do they need? What emotions are weighing on their minds? What support do they need at home?
Fair Haven School’s Spanish-language programs ease the transition. Principal Heriberto Cordero said he has made a point to hire bilingual staff, including two secretaries, a psychologist, a social worker, a nurse, a guidance counselor, and plenty of teachers. He said he hopes to boost the number in the years ahead. Why? “They not only have a heart for the kids, because all educators do, but they really relate to the kids in their particular language and circumstances,” he said.
To make sure that parents are aware, he meets with the families personally, speaking to them in Spanish before they visit the classrooms upstairs from his office.
“‘Hey, you’re not going to have a problem speaking to anyone here,’” he tells them. “I throw a caveat in there. ‘I need you to learn English as quick as you can. You can’t get too comfortable because you’re in a Spanish-speaking environment.’”
Perhaps the most important asset for the new students is the in-house family resource center, one of five in the district. Luz Bentacur, the center’s coordinator, will make house calls to check-in, ring social service agencies for help, and collect donations of clothes, book-bags and food. “They have nothing,” Cordero said. “They’re leaving from nothing, and they’re coming to nothing.” Bentacur hooks them up with Junta for Progressive Action and Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church.
Cordero reported encountering some minor difficulties in the transitions. For one, schooling on the mainland is far more rigorous than on the island. Academically, some new students have struggled, particularly because a few skipped a grade ahead in their new placement, since Puerto Rican schools don’t include kindergarten.
Aside from changing enrollment numbers, the hurricane has deeply impacted district officials and staff, many of whom maintain close ties to Puerto Rico. At a recent Board of Education meeting, Carlos Torre, the board’s vice-president, recounted his struggles to get in touch with a relative on an island with limited electricity and phone service.
The situation has been particularly tough for four employees who interviewed with recruiters on the island in May and moved to New Haven in August. They include a library media specialist at Christopher Columbus Academy, a fourth-grade teacher at Truman School, a physical education instructor at Hill Central, and the principal at John Daniels School who left his wife and three children behind when he took the job and has since been trying desperately to get them out.