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Hartford Schools Chief: Still No Aid For Districts Enrolling Puerto Rican Evacuees

Mar 2, 2018

Show me the money.

That’s the message from Hartford Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The disaster last fall uprooted many Puerto Ricans who fled the island, including children who ended up enrolling in Connecticut schools.

Nearly 450 students displaced by the hurricane are enrolled in the Hartford school system, according to the district’s latest tally. They began arriving in October, after school budgets were set.

And yet, cash-strapped Hartford and other cities are still waiting for government funding to help handle that wave of students.

“I’m expecting the money,” Torres-Rodriguez told Connecticut Public Radio this week. “I’m expecting the money so that I can provide the resources that our students deserve.”

At least 1,800 displaced students are currently enrolled in Connecticut public schools, the state Department of Education said. Hartford welcomed the highest number of students, followed by Waterbury, New Britain, New Haven, Bridgeport and Meriden — all in the triple digits. The town of Windham enrolled more than 80 students, while West Hartford has about a dozen.

State education officials have advised districts on enrollment procedures and the educational rights of students who are resettling on the mainland post-Maria.

But when it comes to financial help, the state Department of Education is telling schools that it doesn’t have any extra money to dole out, and that their best shot is a federal disaster assistance fund to help school districts deal with the recent hurricanes and wildfires. Officials in Connecticut are waiting for that application process to begin.

“We’ve been in pretty close communication with districts,” said Peter Yazbak, a spokesman for the state education department. “Obviously, people are frustrated … . We hear and understand their frustration, but we’re doing everything we can to make sure that when the money comes through, they get it.”

In December, 19 local school districts that enrolled displaced students reported spending a total of $1.2 million to educate them up to that point, according to state data. The districts projected that they would spend $9.8 million by the end of the current school year — on costs such as hiring more staff, conducting health and academic evaluations, and trying to retrieve student data from the island.

Meanwhile, a proposed bill at the state Capitol seeks $2.5 million in state aid to support evacuees and their new schools. The money would help Hartford, but it would only put a dent in the costs.

Before Maria, the Hartford school system was already in a budget crunch after years of flat-funding from the city, Torres-Rodriguez said.

Now adding to the district’s roughly $1 million deficit are expenses for educating hundreds of new students well into the school year. The superintendent did not detail the costs, but said they range from transportation and assessments to hiring new staff to serve evacuees whose first language might not be English. Some students might also qualify for special education.

So far, Hartford has added seven part-time tutors, 11 part-time certified teachers, two full-time bilingual teachers and the equivalent of 1.5 bilingual special education teachers, the district said Friday. The schools are looking to hire an additional five full-time bilingual educators to teach English as a second language.

Torres-Rodriguez, who herself came to Hartford from Puerto Rico when she was a child, said school administrators went into crisis planning in the days after Maria wreaked havoc on the U.S. territory. They figured some survivors would seek refuge in Hartford, a city with a big Puerto Rican community.

“We just didn’t anticipate we’d have 448 students, which is what we have today,” Torres-Rodriguez said. “We are already a high-needs, urban — complex, urban system. This adds another complexity for us while not having the additional resources.”

This story has been updated to include the number of educators Hartford has hired to deal with the influx of Puerto Rican students.

This report is 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.