As kindergarten and first-grade students arrived in Southbridge from their hurricane-ravaged surroundings in Puerto Rico, they were placed in general education classrooms.
But it didn’t take long to recognize that something different had to be done, Eastford Road School Principal Mary Beth Skrzypczak said.
“I would say we had four students that probably cried for three or four hours a day, like nonstop,” Ms. Skrzypczak said.
“You’re talking about children that have lost their home,” the principal said. “Not all of their family members are here. Their toys. Their pets. It’s colder. It’s winter. Even the way we do school here, I’m sure, is dramatically different.”
Suspecting that a full English immersion might add to their trauma, the district opened a “newcomer class” after Thanksgiving. Last week, it had seven kindergarten students and 10 first-graders, and the students appear to be more comfortable and happy among their Spanish speaking peers, district officials said.
A first-year ESL teacher, Alisa Croce, leads the class. She communicates mostly in Spanish, although she has been having them count and add sums in English.
Slowly, the youngsters are beginning to speak English, the teacher said.
Ms. Croce noted that she has been learning, too.
“It’s actually really funny because the kids are teaching me a lot in Spanish,” Ms. Croce said. “I don’t speak it perfectly, and they know that. So they’ll correct me sometimes. It warms my heart; I love it so much. They’re so helpful in that sense. I tell them it’s like we’re learning from each other.”
Statewide, enrollment of students from Puerto Rico continues to climb, and districts throughout Central Massachusetts say they are continuing to address the needs.
According to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, close to 1,900 students, in 87 percent of districts that have reported data, are attending Massachusetts public schools from post-hurricane Puerto Rico as of Dec. 8 – an increase of 300 students from Dec. 1, the DESE said.
As of last Wednesday, Worcester public schools have added 268 hurricane evacuees, including eight from the Virgin Islands and the rest from Puerto Rico, a district official said. It has been adding about 30 students per week as a city task force has helped to address families’ varied needs.
Southbridge has 76 new students, according to Assistant Superintendent Margo Ferrick.
In Fitchburg, which opened a newcomer class for middle-school students, there are 55 evacuees in the district, Director of Enrollment Eva Kelly said.
Many of the students are struggling with English.
“They did have English in their classes in Puerto Rico, but many of them are very low and not able to handle the academic language in English here, especially at the middle school level,” Ms. Kelly said.
The adjustment has also been a challenge for students at Fitchburg High School. Three students agreed to be interviewed at the school last week and Assistant Principal Albert Mercado translated for two of them.
Isabel Ferrer-Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior who has relocated to Fitchburg, told a reporter she is working hard to learn English so she can attend college on the mainland. She said she and her family want what they had back in Puerto Rico. Though the hurricane was a setback, she said, if she works hard in school better things will come.
Nicole Gonzalez-Rodriguez, 17, left Puerto Rico and is staying with 11 relatives in Lunenburg.
Nicole, a senior, thanked school staff for welcoming the evacuees, and she noted its guidance department has been more than eager to help her, particularly with identifying college grants.
Even though Nicole arrived fluent in English and Spanish, she said she has found the adjustment difficult.
She said the volume of state standardized testing she has had to catch up on in just a few months has been “shocking.” So too is having to retake college entrance exams. She said SATs and ACTs have different versions for students seeking to attend college on the U.S. mainland.
Nicole, who arrived in the area Oct. 7, said she also misses school lunches of rice, beans and meat and has had a hard time adjusting to chicken patties and nachos.
Mr. Mercado, the assistant principal, asked Nicole about the first thing she did when she arrived in the U.S.
Pointing out that her family had been using water from a backyard pool to flush toilets, Nicole spoke of being reunited with basic necessities like a child at Christmas. She said she first took a hot shower and worked at regaining the 10 pounds she lost. She said she was down to a “really skinny” 105 pounds.
“I turned on that water and flushed the toilet, just to be able to flush it,” she said of her arrival. “It was amazing. I flicked the lights, on and off, on and off.”
Later, she indulged in a sushi roll at Asian Imperial and ate at a Dunkin Donuts.
Having arrived in jeans and a sweatshirt, Nicole said she had to buy a year’s worth of winter clothes.
“Everyone has so many coats, sweaters, scarves, gloves and hats,” she said.
But Gabriel Rolon-Gonzalez, a 17-year-old senior at Fitchburg High School, pointed out that his family is better off here in some ways.
The family didn’t have medical insurance on the island, but now it does, he said through translation. Gabriel said he has a wheelchair-bound sister born with spina bifida.
Also, Gabriel said his mother has gained employment since moving to Fitchburg, and he points out that students couldn’t work until age 18 in Puerto Rico. Here, he has begun the process to secure a work permit.
But because of the family’s struggles with English, it has been difficult trying to get treatment and identify services, he said.
Gabriel said he also misses his bed. He has been sleeping on a sofa in an apartment among eight people.
He said the family decided to move in with his sister, Erika, in Fitchburg two weeks after the first hurricane, although it was a struggle at first to make contact with her.
The hurricane was also a trying time for Puerto Rican teachers at the Fitchburg school, Mr. Mercado said. They were distraught about not being able to get in contact with loved ones on the island.
Students held a fundraiser for victims, and teachers broke down and cried when a group of students gave them flowers and thank-you cards, said Mr. Mercado, who is also Puerto Rican.
In Southbridge, Johanna Vargas Perez evacuated from Puerto Rico and has since landed a job teaching first-graders in Eastford Road School’s new dual language program.
Ms. Vargas Perez, who moved in with her sister, had been living in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, and taught vocational classes to adults at Dewey University.
The transition to teaching Southbridge’s youngest students has been great, she said. “I love kids. I enjoy them as much as they enjoy me,” she said.
Ms. Vargas Perez’s husband is still in Puerto Rico. She said he is planning to move here to be with her by March.
Their home was damaged by heavy winds. Panels from the front windows blew off and the front door was torn from its hinges, allowing water to seep in everywhere, she said.
Ms. Vargas Perez said she had been thinking about relocating to the area anyway, because her father – also of Southbridge – is getting older.
She called her new job in Southbridge a blessing.
“When God has a plan it always works out,” she said.