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As migrant families flood into Massachusetts, school leaders strategize on how to welcome the youngest children

“We are doing the best we can to design a system that supports kids, families, teachers, and the community,” said Kevin Avitabile, director of student services for the Middleborough Public Schools

Kindergarten teacher Kelley Hurley sorts items donated for Haitian migrant families at a United Methodist church in Woburn, Mass., in August.SOPHIE PARK/NYT

When Woburn kindergarten teacher Kelley Hurley learned in August that 150 newly arrived migrant families would be housed at a local hotel under the state’s right-to-shelter law, she wasted no time worrying about the burden this might put on her classroom or those of her colleagues. Instead, Hurley mobilized quickly with other community volunteers to do as much as she could to help the families in the final weeks before school began.

Once the most critical details, such as enrolling them in Mass Health coverage and WIC food benefits, had been attended to, the volunteers turned their attention to the young children who would soon be starting school, many for the first time.


“We held a backpack drive to collect school supplies for the children,” Hurley said. “We needed to think about not only what they’d need in the classroom but also at the shelter, since the typical hotel room isn’t really set up for doing homework.”

Carloads of donations with pencils, crayons, paper and other supplies soon began arriving at the shelter. Community members also donated clothing for the children, with an eye to the approaching fall and winter and the likelihood that many of the families, who hail primarily from Haiti and other warm-weather countries, may not have experienced cold weather before.

Working alongside Hurley was fellow volunteer Andrins Renaudin, whose efforts were invaluable as a native speaker of Haitian Creole. “The parents tell me they are so happy to finally get their children into school,” said Renaudin, a Haitian-American health care professional who has lived in Woburn for the past 10 years.

Donated winter coats for Haitian migrant families at the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Woburn, Mass.SOPHIE PARK/NYT

The timeline was even tighter in Middleborough, where town officials learned in late September of the arrival of a large group of migrants who would be sheltered in a local hotel. Just a month earlier, Governor Maura Healey had designated the influx of migrants into Massachusetts a state of emergency and authorized the National Guard to assist the more than 6,200 families living in hotels.


“We spent a week working with the town, families, and school district to create as seamless a plan as you can come up with in five days,” said Kevin Avitabile, director of student services for the Middleborough Public Schools. “Accommodating an influx this quickly tests the limits of our resources. We are doing the best we can to design a system that supports kids, families, teachers, and the community.”

Along with reallocating classroom space and considering the current staffing level for English language learners, Middleborough school officials arranged for families at the shelter to take a bus tour of the town. “Families and students could see where the schools were but also learn where they’d be getting on the bus and even meet the bus driver,” Avitabile said. With about 30 migrant children entering the school system at once, half of them at the elementary level, “We want to create an environment that is as inclusive as possible.”

Not everything about this situation is new to the community, said Middleborough Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Lyons. “We already had a family shelter within our borders, and my role was homelessness liaison before I was the superintendent,” Lyons said. Proactive community outreach has long been a priority of the school system, and the public pre-kindergarten program is designed to identify needs for early intervention.


The focus isn’t only on making the children comfortable, Lyons said. Documents with basic information like the address of the school and the principal’s contact information have been translated for parents. “We’re trying to reduce anxiety all around,” she said. “Studies on homelessness show that the more a family moves around, the more impacted the children are. Our goal is to provide as much consistency and predictability as possible, no matter what the grade level.”

Teachers highlight the fact that new perspectives have the potential to benefit all students. “The entire school community is enjoying learning about our new students’ interests and hearing their stories,” said Alexandra Case, an elementary English language learner teacher in Middleborough. “They help make our school an even more exciting place.”

In Concord, where a local Best Western was converted into a shelter to house migrant families last spring, 20 students from the shelter are currently enrolled in the public schools, mostly at the elementary level. Although the town has three elementary schools, school administrators made the decision to send all the elementary school-age children from the shelter to one campus.

“It helps us to use our support services as effectively as possible,” said Laurie Hunter, Concord’s superintendent of schools. It’s also an additional comfort to the kids, many of whom have formed almost familial bonds while sharing a communal residence.

Meanwhile, a recently hired family services coordinator meets regularly with the parents at the Concord shelter to update them on school developments. Parents have had the chance to tour the elementary school so they can see where their children are spending their days. Moreover, the school is providing employment for some of the adult migrants, including one who helps as a classroom interpreter and four others, all of whom have legal work permits, who are working as custodians, filling second-shift openings that had previously stood open for months.


Still, “it can be hard day-to-day,” Hunter said. The language barrier may be the most apparent obstacle, but the children’s histories as migrants cannot be overlooked either. Some are traumatized by the struggle of leaving their homeland and traveling to the US; others have never attended school or been apart from their parents before, whereas typically kindergarteners arrive at the Concord schools with at least a couple of years of preschool under their belts.

And yet children in the youngest grades know instinctively how to communicate. “They find parallel ways to play and make their way around the language barrier,” said Hunter after a recent visit to the elementary school. “We are all benefiting and growing from this opportunity. We are a community that is always in conversation about how to be more inclusive and how to become more diverse. Now we have the chance to put those beliefs to work.”

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at