Metro

Mass. schools welcome 2,100 Maria evacuees

Ashantie Lopez did homework in the living room of her aunt’s house in Springfield.
Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
Ashantie Lopez did homework in the living room of her aunt’s house in Springfield.

SPRINGFIELD — Ashantie Lopez’s school in Puerto Rico withstood the wrath of Hurricane Maria in September, but its transformation into a makeshift shelter halted classes as the US territory struggled to recover.

So on Nov. 29, Ashantie continued sixth grade far away from the heat and devastation, staying with extended family in Springfield. For the 11-year-old, the journey represented the latest chapter in a turbulent life: She lost her mother to cancer when she was 4 and her father died a year later, a victim of the same disease.

“I feel nervous,” said Ashantie, sitting next to her cousin at a school registration site the day after she arrived in Massachusetts.

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Ashantie is one of more than 2,100 young evacuees from Puerto Rico who have enrolled in Massachusetts schools since Maria struck the island on Sept. 20. The influx of students, plus some from other Caribbean islands, is the largest spurred by a natural disaster in recent memory.

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The evacuees have prompted Boston, Worcester, and other districts to make space in classrooms for dozens of additional students; seek donations for needs such as coats, mittens, and boots; and assess whether students need psychological help for trauma they experienced.

In many cases, the districts knew soon after the destruction in Puerto Rico became evident that they could expect an influx. That’s because the districts are in cities with large Puerto Rican communities, where residents would be likely to open their homes to relatives and friends.

Out of all the school districts in Massachusetts, none has welcomed more Puerto Rican students than Springfield, enrolling 520 so far. That’s about a quarter of all such students who have registered statewide. Not even Boston, tallying 156, comes close.

“They are part of us,” said Lydia Martinez, a Puerto Rico native and the assistant superintendent for the Springfield Public Schools. “We wanted them to feel welcome from day one, and everybody in the city, including in the Springfield Public Schools, has been beyond gracious, and we hope that the families feel the same way about us.”

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Since early October, students have been arriving by the dozens in this Western Massachusetts city. They have spanned all grades and speak English with varying levels of proficiency. The school system has also welcomed about three dozen students from other Caribbean islands and parts of Florida devastated by this fall’s intense hurricane season.

Often students arrive without copies of their academic records — unattainable because their schools have been closed since the hurricane. That makes it difficult for educators to determine students’ levels of skill in their studies, what kind of extra academic support they might need, and if they have any learning disabilities that require special attention.

But the additional students have not overwhelmed Springfield’s schools. Because the Puerto Rican community spans the city, the newly arrived students have popped up in nearly all its 60 schools. The most students one school has received is about two dozen, spread across grade levels.

The fairly even distribution has caused school officials to jokingly ask: “Where are all the students?”

The students will likely find classmates familiar with their customs and language: Nearly two-thirds of Springfield’s 26,000 students are Latino, largely of Puerto Rican descent. Many teachers and classroom aides are also Latino.

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On a recent tour of Indian Orchard Elementary School, principal Deanna Suomala showed how recent arrivals were adjusting to their new routines and classes. Two students from Puerto Rico wearing puffy jackets and mittens were heading out to recess with the rest of their kindergarten class, a girl with a long ponytail clicked away on a laptop in a second-grade classroom, and another girl in a fifth-grade classroom was writing a story about a dog.

‘They are part of us. We wanted them to feel welcome from day one.’

— Lydia Martinez, Springfield assistant schools superintendent 

The school, in a neighborhood of single-family homes and two government-subsidized housing developments, has welcomed about a dozen students.

“As soon as we hear a student is coming, we are ready to welcome them when they walk through the door,” she said.

Shannira Andino, 9, a third-grader, has been helping a couple of her classmates adjust, translating what the teacher says into Spanish for them. She knows from experience some of what they are going through: She came from Puerto Rico when she was 4 and didn’t know English. “I was lost,” she said.

“I’m sure they want to learn English, too,” she added. “I like helping them out because when I came here I had a lot of help.”

The outpouring from residents, businesses, and others interested in helping the students was so robust that the school district set up a student assistance fund.

But Springfield, like other districts, is confronting challenges. Across the state, school officials are increasingly concerned about the fate of Puerto Rican evacuees who enroll in the 12th grade.

Under state law, these students must pass the MCAS tests to graduate, giving them little time to do so while also not having the benefit of being taught under the state’s academic standards.

And even if they pass all the MCAS tests in math, English, and science they still might not be able to graduate. In many cases, schools have been unable to gain access to official academic transcripts from Puerto Rico, making it impossible for administrators to determine if the students have completed the courses needed to earn a Massachusetts high school diploma.

Districts are also concerned about the financial implications if enrollment continues growing. Several districts said they may have to hire additional teachers.

Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe
Ashantie Lopez, a student from Puerto Rico, is attending classes in Springfield.

Then there are questions about how long the students will stay. “Some kids say they are never going back home again because everything got destroyed, but other kids say they want to go back because they miss the warm climate or seeing the ocean every day,” said Maureen Binienda, superintendent of the Worcester schools, which have received 276 students from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

Jeff Wulfson, acting commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said the state is starting to take some steps to address local concerns. For instance, the state is awarding $5,000 grants to districts with more than 50 Puerto Rican evacuees, and Governor Charlie Baker has indicated that he will seek additional state funding.

The surge in students from Puerto Rico is notably larger than what Massachusetts schools experienced after the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti. According to a state report released a year after the quakes, more than 700 students from Haiti registered in local schools.

Boston received the bulk of Haitian students then: 383, the report said.

The state was unable to provide any data on students from the Gulf Coast who relocated to Massachusetts after Hurricane Katrina, but Wulfson said he recalled only a few hundred did, and most stays were temporary.

Alexandra Oliver-Davila, executive director of Sociedad Latina, a community-based organization that primarily serves Latino youth in Boston, said the Hub is likely not enrolling the highest number of students from Puerto Rico for two reasons: Its Puerto Rican community is not as large as other cities, and its high cost and scarcity of housing is probably deterring families.

But Oliver-Davila said the pace of students and families relocating to Boston is still strong. Her organization’s offices in Roxbury are being used as one of the city’s pop-up school registration sites, where newly arrived families can also apply for government benefits, such as subsidized health care and food stamps.

“The pop-up center was supposed to operate two days a week, but we had such a huge volume we have been open every day,” she said.

As the influx of students shows no signs of slowing down, Oliver-Davila said her organization and others have started meeting with city officials to develop a long-term plan to address their needs.

One of the most pressing problems is helping families who have been paying for hotels with FEMA benefits, which will expire soon, and ensuring they don’t become homeless.

Back in Springfield, Ashantie Lopez has been settling into her new middle school, which specializes in math, science, and engineering, said her cousin, Hillary Colon.

“We don’t even have to tell her to do her homework,” Colon said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.