Local schools prepare for influx of students from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico

Local schools prepare for influx of students from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico


School officials in Meriden are watching the news closely to see when flights will begin leaving Puerto Rico and they’re tracking the entry of hurricane victims on a Google document.

“Based on the date on the registration forms of when students arrive, we can easily track the number of students who were affected,” said Elsie Torres Brown, bilingual education supervisor for the Meriden public schools.

In Wallingford, School Superintendent Salvatore Menzo addressed a possible migration of students from Puerto Rico in his blog.

“As some of you may know, we do expect some new students in our district over the next few years,” Menzo wrote. “These students are welcomed to join our learning community based on provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act. All school office staff are aware of the steps that need to be taken for enrollment. This is an incredibly stressful time for these families, and we certainly want to be there to support them.”

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act “is the primary piece of federal legislation dealing with the education of children and youth in homeless situations,” according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth website. “Its key themes are school access and stability, support for educational success, and child-centered decision-making.”

School districts primarily in cities along the East Coast are bracing for an increase in students from Puerto Rico as potentially millions of citizens leave the hurricane-ravaged country to find comfort with family members living on the mainland.

In the days since hurricanes Irma and Maria struck U.S. territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, school superintendents have sought guidance from state educators about how to supervise this potential situation, according to a statement from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office last week.

“When tragedy strikes, it is often our children who are most at risk,” Malloy said. “We anticipate many families affected by the disaster in Puerto Rico may seek refuge in our state. “As required by federal law, it is imperative that young children who have been displaced are enrolled in schools immediately and are provided with health and other services necessary to ensure their academic success.”

District personnel should be counseled to enroll these displaced students immediately, as required by federal law, Malloy said. The students are automatically eligible to receive free school meals and must also be provided with health and related services necessary to ensure their academic success. All students experiencing homelessness must be accurately reported in the statewide public school information system, according to the statement from Malloy’s office.

School districts up and down the East Coast are accustomed to receiving new families from the island. More than 450,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland over the last decade amid the territory’s economic recession. After the island government announced last spring that it would close 179 public schools, some already were expecting island students to arrive in bigger numbers this fall.

“The unfortunate occurrence of Hurricane Maria has expedited those plans,” said Khalid Mumin, superintendent in Reading, Pennsylvania, where plans include parent outreach assistants at each school.

In Holyoke, Massachusetts, where 80 percent of the 5,300 schoolchildren are from the island or of Puerto Rican descent, parents are being asked to let the school district know as soon as possible if they plan to put up any school-age relatives. In Hartford, the superintendent directed the welcome center to closely track the number of families coming because of the hurricane in order to stay ahead of the trend.

In New Britain, two young boys who were sent to their grandfather’s home prior to Maria’s landfall are now already enrolled in district schools, according to the Associated Press.

In Meriden, there are no new registrants from Puerto Rico following the hurricane, school officials said. However, there is knowledge of at least one family ready to accept a family with three children this month.

At the top of the list of concerns is the emotional well-being of students, not only for newcomers but also children whose relatives are affected or whose homes could suddenly become crowded with extended family.

“It wasn’t only going through the hurricane and listening to horrific winds and thinking there won’t be a tomorrow,” said Ileana Cintron, chief of family and community engagement for the Holyoke schools. “The aftermath of scarcity, and people being very anxious about where they will find food, that definitely has an impact on children.”

About 53.8 percent of Meriden students identify themselves as Hispanic, although there is no breakdown by territory or country. In order to track hurricane refugees, the school tracks address of origin, school officials said.

In Wallingford, where 6.7 percent of the student population identifies as Hispanic, Menzo has discussed the possible influx and administrators, and clerical staff have been briefed on state and federal law.

“We would accept all students and make necessary provisions for them. We will do whatever we need in order to comply with the McKinney-Vento act and meet the needs of the students,” Menzo said.“Just because 6.7 percent of our student population is Hispanic that does not mean that they are all from Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rican is not classified as an ethnicity because it is not classified as one by the state of Connecticut.

“The emotional pain and trauma that these storms have exposed countless young people to is truly heartbreaking,” state Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell said in a statement. “As educators, it is our duty to ensure that all children of school age are given access to the safety, support, and stability that our school environments provide.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.

Twitter: @Cconnbiz


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