New London adjusts to influx of students from storm-ravaged Puerto Rico

Destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Destroyed communities are seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

New London — Children uprooted from their homes by the hurricane in Puerto Rico are landing here at a pace that is starting to strain the school district’s limited resources.

The district has welcomed 51 students from Puerto Rico to date, a number expected to more than double by February, said Daisy Torres, the district’s director of the bilingual, English for speakers of other languages and world languages departments. There is also one student who arrived from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

That's a fraction of the 1,722 students who have come to Connecticut in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which on Sept. 20 left most of Puerto Rico without power and in some cases without schools.

The result in New London and other small urban centers, like Norwich, which has 40 new students from Puerto Rico, is the need for more bilingual teachers and support staff on a very limited budget.

The New London school board already is working with a budget that has barely weathered several rounds of cutbacks without having to resort to layoffs. The district’s answer has been to shift around available resources.

The Board of Education voted last week to allow the district to scrape together $172,313 from all of its schools and central office budgets and direct the money to pay for new educators in the schools with the most need. Interim Superintendent Stephen Tracy said administrators identified the cuts and made a sacrifice to support the entire district.

The list of cuts includes office supplies, equipment, contracted services and in many cases areas “to be determined.” The request was made recently, Tracy said, and not all school administrators have identified where they can make cuts.

The funds will pay for a new TESOL — teacher of English to speakers of other languages — at C.B. Jennings Dual Language and International Elementary Magnet, which is now home to 20 of the 51 new students from Puerto Rico. Torres said the teacher will directly support new arrivals and assist in not only instruction but also language acquisition.

The money also will help pay for a certified bilingual teacher and a tutor at Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, where there are eight new students. New London High School and the STEM Magnet High School will be able to hire a bilingual tutor and expand science and social studies classes.

New London High School has 17 new students from Puerto Rico. There are five at Harbor and one at Winthrop. Nathan Hale is the only school without a new student from Puerto Rico.

Torres said that while students have their pick of schools and there are support services throughout the district, students and families so far seem to be most comfortable at Jennings, which along with Bennie Dover has a dual language program and is within walking distance of many homes.

Families tend to follow where others already have gone. It also helps the comfort level to know that Jennings Principal Jose A. Ortiz is a native of Puerto Rico and speaks the language.

“If that is their first choice, we want to honor that,” Torres said.

Kate McCoy, the district's executive director for strategic planning, government and media relations, said at the recent school board meeting that building capacity is a factor in where students are placed and Jennings started the school year with a lower enrollment and Nathan Hale on the higher end.

Norwich Superintendent Abby Dolliver said her district advertised for two more TESOL teachers early on during the influx of students from hurricane-affected areas. The district still is in the process of finding the right candidates, she said, because of a statewide shortage.

Dolliver said the district is using the existing resources and moving bilingual teachers, tutors or support staff to where they are needed most.

“We have to be very creative to meet the needs of the kids,” Dolliver said.

The state Department of Education has been providing guidance to school districts regarding the enrollment and educational rights of displaced students but has no funding to offer.

“We are, however, working closely with the Governor’s office and members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation to advocate for federal funding through the disaster relief package’s Hurricane Education Recovery account and to request that the U.S. Department of Education provide funding on an emergency basis to ensure that districts will be able to obtain the fiscal support needed to cover the costs of serving and educating displaced students,” the statement reads.

And while the New London school district has been able to stave off any cuts to personnel in order to accommodate the new students, the influx raises other concerns. School board Vice President Manuel Rivera brought up two of them at the school board meeting: Is the influx impacting class size, and is the district in jeopardy of running afoul of state compliance requirements?

The district’s magnet schools each must maintain 25 percent of their student population from outside the district or risk losing a portion of its state magnet funding. The answers at this point are unknown.

The 51 new students from Puerto Rico are just a portion of the 209 students in New London who have enrolled since the school year began. Rivera, who is the former school superintendent, said the budget, before it was cut back, was built to accommodate just 170 new students.

Tracy said he had spoken to the commissioner of the state Department of Education, who was sympathetic but made no promises.

“I think she understood we should not lose magnet school funding because we’re taking in youngsters who came to us in this way,” Tracy said.

School board President Mirna Martinez said, “They’re here, they’re our kids and they are welcome.”

“We want to know from the state that they are being supportive, not counting against us,” she added.

While few are expecting the state to step in and offer more money to school districts, there is hope federal funds might at some point be available.



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