The effects of displacement on Puerto Rican K-12 students in Florida after Hurricane Maria

by | Jan 3, 2019 | Headlines, Puerto Rico | Comments

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017, many residents were left with nothing and chose to move to the mainland following the many who had migrated to the states in previous years. Since so many schools were destroyed and had to be closed due to storm damage and budgetary concerns, it was unclear after the hurricanes as to how students would be able to receive an education. According to the most recent data available from the US Census Bureau, migration from Puerto Rico to Florida increased significantly from less than half a million from around 2001, to well over one million by 2016. After Hurricane Maria, the state is expected to have the largest share of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland. On September 4, 2018, US Representative Stephanie Murphy (D) of Florida’s office noted in a press release that State of Florida has “received $95.8 million in federal funding to reimburse the State and county-based school districts for the additional costs they incurred during the 2017-2018 school year after taking in K-12 students from Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands,” with about 5 million being allocated to Osceola County.

Recently, authors Molly Hamm-Rodríguez and Astrid Sambolín Morales of The Natural Hazards Center, released a preliminary study titled “The Effects of Displacement on Puerto Rican K-12 Students in Florida after Hurricane Maria.” The purpose of this study is to examine the impact that displacement had on the education of Puerto Rican children and their families, focusing on policies and programs enacted by the School District of Osceola County, social services provided by community organizations in Osceola County, and the perspectives and experiences of those involved (i.e. school district staff, administrators, teachers, and parents). Primary data was collected from district policy documents and community organization program materials, site visits to schools and nonprofit organizations, and interviews with 27 community organization leaders, parents, school district officials, principals, teachers, and school personnel. The sample included four schools (one elementary school, one middle school, and two high schools) and two nonprofit organizations. Their preliminary findings were broken down into three categories. Category 1 is titled “School,” Category 2 is titled “Community,” and Category 3 is titled “Mobility and Migration.” Below is a discussion of their findings, followed by a synopsis of the study’s implications and needs for future research.

Category I “School”

Basic Needs: Students and families arriving from Puerto Rico often came to Florida with very little, and unlike those included in pre-storm migrations, these new travelers were most often living in poverty before arriving in Florida, thus it was imperative that the school district needed to help families secure basic needs. Researchers noted that the Special Programs Department was instrumental in organizing and distributing donations and conducting outreach.

Socioemotional Support: Recognizing that displacement from one’s home is a traumatic experience for many, the district also worked with fourteen mental health providers to offer services to students, made available mainly through Medicaid or through pro bono contributions, and they also hired additional social workers and made sure that each school had an active guidance counselor on staff. Stress related to language barriers was also mentioned under this category, as students became distressed when language testing changed their class or teacher assignment. In an effort to calm these concerns, some students were kept in English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms to provide support and stability, even if their English language skills were stronger.

Graduation Requirements: Because of the large numbers of new students, informational meetings for students and their families were held at every high school, and in these meetings it was announced to attendees that students were given the option of obtaining a high school diploma from Puerto Rico or from the state of Florida, with the majority of students choosing to obtain the Florida diploma. The downside to the Florida diploma option was that students needed to pass the state graduation exit exam in English, and students from Puerto Rico already had limited experience with standardized tests. Those students who would choose to earn a diploma from Puerto Rico had additional requirements to complete, including community service and a career component, although the community service requirement was eventually waived. Researchers noted that senior transcripts were continuously reviewed and used to guarantee all graduation requirements were met, and that school staff were working with juniors to plan for the following year’s challenges.

Language: After Hurricane Maria, the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the district rose from 15 to 17%, and he new students arriving varied in language needs and preparation, thus creating a need for more language support and services in now larger classrooms. This report also states that “Additionally, many of the students qualified for special education services through the district’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) department, which requires bilingual psychologists, counselors, and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that outline appropriate accommodations,” emphasizing that these new challenges often stretch far beyond just a language barrier problem for some students, teachers, and support staff. Schools do  have the autonomy to determine the offerings that best serve their students, and administrators noted that the large increase in Spanish-speaking students across the district allowed them to address previously unidentified gaps in providing effective language support to ELL students. As mentioned above, standardized testing in English and other performance testing created stress for students, teachers, and school districts. Compounding this issue, the Every Student Succeeds Act allows for students to be tested in their home language rather than English, yet this accommodation was not supported at the state level, therefore not fully allowing non-English speaking test takers to truly demonstrate their content knowledge. This study notes that all Puerto Rican students at the secondary level (regardless of English proficiency) had to take standardized tests in English in order to graduate.

Culture: School staff and teachers recognized that students arriving from Puerto Rico were not accustomed to large campuses and buildings, passing periods, strict security measures and rules for leaving campus, class schedules, and cafeteria offerings, and the staff took measures to make displaced students feel welcomed. Peer mentoring programs were enacted, and many of these group members were students displaced from Puerto Rico who had arrived in Osceola County previously. The district also pushed to hire displaced Puerto Rican teachers who could provide both emotional support and a connection to their home culture and language, and bilingualism was a requirement for hiring.

Category II “Community”

Basic Needs: Researchers mentioned that insufficient funds were allocated to Osceola County to be able to truly cover the needs of displaced families, and therefore, nonprofit organizations such as Community Hope Center and the Council on Aging organized community support and secured private funding sources to help meet basic needs. Staff at the Community Hope Center took on the caseloads of families experiencing homelessness and met with families and individuals to discuss available assistance programs, while The Council on Aging worked with a large volume of displaced individuals with special medical needs by offering free clinics to those who did not have access to insurance, and they also provided hospital beds, walkers, and wheelchairs, while church partners donated uniforms, free haircuts, and backpacks with supplies. Many other organizations including Love Pantry, Domino USA, Acacia Community Center, Latinx Leadership, Mi Familia Vota, The Lions Club, and CASA also helped to serve displaced Puerto Ricans, with the goal of providing adequate long-term solutions to those displaced by Hurricane Maria.

Housing: One of the main challenges facing displaced Puerto Ricans in Osceola County was the ability to secure affordable housing. Since most of the displaced families were already living in poverty before arriving, high rents and multiple restrictions in Osceola were immediate concerns for many families. FEMA’s Transitional Housing Assistance (TSA) program provided housing vouchers in hotels and motels to those arriving after Hurricane Maria, yet already stressed families were given eviction notices multiple times, and the expiration deadlines for benefits were frequently changed on short notice. Many families using these hotel vouchers dealt with wearisome conditions like limited physical space and no access to kitchens. This study mentions one particular horrible case, where displaced Puerto Rican mother was shot to death in front of her mother and two children in Osceola County, exemplifying the consequences of not providing adequate housing conditions. Around 70% of Osceola County’s residents are already cost-burdened by high rents, and to make matters worse, many local residents protested the initiatives to construct affordable housing, arguing that this type of housing would lower their property values. Section 8 housing has three- to five-year waitlists, and programs like Homeward Bound, an organization who offers help for families facing homelessness, have strict protocols for who can receive aid. Several other community organizations such as the Community Hope Center, Vamos4PR, and local churches also provided support to needy, displaced families by offering rapid rehousing programs, help with coordinating rental assistance, advocating for FEMA voucher extensions, connecting families to services, and providing general support for the subsistence and socioemotional needs. Regardless of these positive efforts, researchers found that it was still impossible to assist everyone in need of adequate housing.

Category III: “Mobility and Migration”

According to research conducted by Center for Puerto Rican Studies, the Puerto Rican population grew in the U.S. from 5.4 million in 2016 to 5.5 million in 2017. The data collected by Hamm-Rodríguez and Morales’ preliminary study suggests that the migration flow between the island and the mainland United States has not stopped, and that teachers expect a “tidal wave” of new students in the 2018-2019 school year. Based on the needs mentioned in the above sections such as access to affordable housing and gainful employment, researchers note that families are choosing to migrate to different schools in the district, to other cities in Florida, and to other states in the country, and some families will eventually decide to return to Puerto Rico.

As families settle into new lives in the mainland United States, they are also moving to different schools in the district, to other cities in Florida, and to other states in the country. Some have already or will soon move back to Puerto Rico, depending on things such as access to financial resources after the FEMA housing voucher program expired, the outcome of the economic crisis unfolding on the islands, and if legislators can successfully rebuild infrastructure and be able to adequately prepare for future disasters.

Implications and Future Research

Researchers concluded that over the long term, the post-Maria migration influx will have important implications for local communities and public schools. The result of this pilot study helped to increase the awareness about the effects of disaster relocation processes and how these processes help shape displaced students’ educational experiences. Researchers argue that “Theoretically, this research contributes to literature on education and disaster by emphasizing linguistic and cultural diversity as important considerations for post-disaster educational programming and social services,” and that this research also “informs education policy and practice by identifying opportunities and challenges in addressing the needs of displaced populations.” These results are not just relevant for Florida counties, as displaced Puerto Ricans families are also moving to many other areas throughout the mainland.

Documenting policies and programs enacted by different receiving districts and communities is important for future research in order to compare and contrast experiences based on local factors. What works in Florida, may not work in New York City as diverse student populations vary significantly, and so do the communities where services are provided. And finally, researchers point out that more data is needed that will examine how the youth themselves perceive their experiences of displacement and how those experiences have influenced their educational goals.