It’s mid-March and Hartford Public High School teacher Bridget Allison goes over essay-writing tips for her fourth-period class. After a while, she checks in on a group of students who are seated together — a few of the evacuees from Puerto Rico.
She wants to make sure they understood her instructions. But Allison doesn’t speak Spanish, the students’ dominant language. And she doesn’t have a tutor in her class to help.
“We already don’t have what we need to help these students,” Allison told Connecticut Public Radio. “We do not have enough ESL teachers.”
Before Hurricane Maria, the Hartford school system was dealing with budget cuts and a bottleneck of needs — then came the arrival of nearly 450 students who survived the storm. A quarter of those new arrivals are in high school, and educators such as Allison say they could use some extra help.
Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez doesn’t disagree. In this almost-bankrupt Connecticut city with rich, cultural ties to the Caribbean, even the schools chief has a personal story of arriving in Hartford from Puerto Rico as a child, not knowing English.
But now that the evacuees are here, it’s been tricky.
“Back in September, I was not anticipating having 448 students, which is what we have today,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
When school leaders heard how badly Puerto Rico was hit, they started to game plan, figuring the storm would have a ripple effect on the students and staff in the district. Hartford initially steered the evacuees to schools with plenty of bilingual staff. They called them hub schools.
Justin Quinones, 18, arrived more than two months after the hurricane. He has relatives in Connecticut’s capital city, and even attended Hartford’s Bulkeley High School for a spell earlier in his high school career. After his family made the gut-wrenching decision to leave their home on the island, Quinones assumed he would return to Bulkeley to finish out his senior year.
But when it came time to enroll, Quinones said he was essentially turned away.
Bulkeley, a hub school in the South End, received more than 70 evacuees and was maxed out.
‘Good,’ But Not Great
Now Quinones is at Hartford High, in Allison’s senior seminar. Because he came later in the school year, he missed her entire, multi-day presentation on colleges and career options. So did Alondra Medina, a 17-year-old who dreams of becoming a doctor.
“I came on January 11,” she said.
The two classmates each described coming from small high schools in Puerto Rico. At this Hartford school alone, they’re joined by about 30 other evacuees. Both Quinones and Medina said the pace has been hard to get used to in Hartford.
But they’re pleased with their education here, and how the teachers find different ways to explain something if they don’t get it the first time.
They also rely on the internet for translation. “We use the Google Translate,” Quinones said.
During a typical class, Allison said she can spend only a few minutes to drop in on them and see if they understood her English.
“When I look at Justin and I look at Alondra and the help that I’m able to give them — it’s good,” Allison said. “But it can be so much better. That is one of the things that I find very heartbreaking, because I would not ever tolerate that for my own child.”
The district said this week that it’s spent about $400,000 on new hires to educate the evacuees. Overall, Torres-Rodriguez estimates that the cash-strapped district will spend at least $1 million this year on the new arrivals, including on transportation and testing. She said Hartford and other local districts have been waiting for the government to help offset the costs, but that hasn’t happened yet. They’re hoping for federal aid.
“I’m expecting the money,” she said. “I’m expecting the money so that I can provide the resources that our students deserve.”
And while Hartford has brought on a bunch of part-time teachers, tutors and at least five full-time bilingual teachers, the district said it’s looking to hire a few more, despite an ongoing budget deficit.
Patience and Frustration
“We could always use more resources,” said Thomas Baldino, the English as a Second Language coach at Hartford High. “In my perfect world, I would love … at least two more ESL teachers. I think that would be a nice, nice number.”
After the storm, the district shuffled staff around to help the schools with the biggest influx of students. So now Baldino is down an ESL teacher. He has a team of five educators, including himself, for roughly 350 students who qualify for ESL services at the high school, he said.
Some are well on their way to becoming fluent in English and just need some monitoring. Others are new to the language and need a lot more help.
It’s not just evacuees from Puerto Rico. Throughout the year, the school enrolls students from Brazil, Jamaica, the Congo, Tanzania, Thailand and the Dominican Republic.
“They’re sad because they miss their country,” Baldino said. “They’re in shock. And I tell them — I tell every single student that comes here — have patience with yourself. Have patience with the process of learning. And have patience with the teachers. Because if you’re frustrated, sometimes the teachers get frustrated, too, because they want to be able to reach you and sometimes it’s hard.”
Six months after the hurricane, the Puerto Rican students are still coping with the devastation. The other day, Baldino said one student pulled up a YouTube video and showed him the flooding.
“Their island is in deep trouble, and I feel for them,” he said. “We all have each other’s back in this time. We all have to work together. And for the most part, we try to do that here.”
While turmoil persists on the island, in Connecticut the high school days are zipping by. Medina just took the SATs and is considering Manchester Community College, then transferring to a university in two years. Quinones is thinking of going back to Puerto Rico for his higher education, where the coursework would be in his preferred Spanish.
Both expect to graduate this year from Hartford Public High School, as long as they complete a mandatory senior project.
But there’s one American milestone they’re not so sure about.
“I don’t know,” Medina demurred. “Ahh, I don’t know.”
“I think no,” Quinones said.
They’ll probably skip the prom.
This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.
This report is also part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Conn., Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.