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Catholic schools in Miami find room for Puerto Rican students

‘This will give them a sense of normality and a sense that life goes on,’ official says

Members of the U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Command deliver boxes of M.R.E's and water up a makeshift ladder to people that were cut off after the bridge collapsed when Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was cut off from help for about 2 weeks and there is still a need for basic life necessities after the category 4 hurricane passed through.

Photographer: Joe Raedle /Getty Images

Members of the U.S. Army 1st Special Forces Command deliver boxes of M.R.E's and water up a makeshift ladder to people that were cut off after the bridge collapsed when Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 5, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was cut off from help for about 2 weeks and there is still a need for basic life necessities after the category 4 hurricane passed through.

MIAMI | Catholic schools in the archdiocese have been accepting students and enrollment inquiries from Puerto Rican families displaced to Florida following Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on that island last month.

An informal survey conducted in early October by the Office of Catholic Schools indicated that some 50 students from Puerto Rico — and two from the U.S. Virgin Islands — had already been placed in Catholic elementary and secondary schools within the archdiocese. More such enrollments are expected in the coming months.

“They are still in the process of arriving since flights out of Puerto Rico are difficult to get and very expensive. We expect to receive more students in the coming weeks,” said Hope Sadowski, coordinator of Foreign Students and administrative executive assistant in the Schools Office.

Sadowski said the Miami archdiocese is asking the schools to keep a tally of the Puerto Rican enrollments and to do everything they can to facilitate the emergency enrollments wherever possible, adding that some schools naturally will have more capacity than others.

Sadowski added that Catholic schools are working with the families on an individual basis to determine financial arrangements and in some cases may offer a waiver or partial waiver of tuition fees in the short term.

The situation draws some comparisons to the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake when many families were resettled in South Florida and enrolled their children in private schools here, although Sadowski points out that the Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who are able to access U.S. public education and stay in the U.S. mainland indefinitely if they so choose.

Also, Puerto Rican students are generally fluent in English, making for what should be a slightly easier transition to academic life in the U.S., she noted.

It is a matter of speculation how many Puerto Ricans will move to Florida and the U.S. mainland as a result of Hurricane Maria and how long they will stay. Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in Florida to help the state provide services to Puerto Ricans fleeing the devastation of Puerto Rico. He reportedly set up disaster relief centers at airports and sea ports in the Miami and Orlando regions.

The governor's office notes that since Oct. 3, approximately 20,000 individuals arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico through Miami International Airport, Orlando International Airport and Port Everglades. Catholic Charities agencies in Florida are also assisting with managing referrals for schooling, medical, health clinics, food pantries, ESL services, and financial assistance, according to the governor.

Sadowski, of the schools office, said the situation is developing fast and may or may not ultimately grow to a long term crisis, depending on how fast Puerto Rico can rebuild infrastructure.

“It is probably going to be a temporary situation, but it might last the whole school year due to the lack of electricity and damages to the schools there,” Sadowski said. She predicts many students in Puerto Rico will be unable to attend any school this year due to the severe damage to the infrastructure. They will have to make up their lost year later.

Families who can absorb the cost and logistics of relocating to Florida are likely to first consider public schools for obvious financial reasons but the local Catholic schools stand ready to assist, she added.

“Those schools that are at capacity can maybe stretch it out a little, or will have to recommend the closest school that can accommodate more kids, but this is a special situation,” Sadowski said, recalling her own transition to life in the U.S. as a Cuban-born transplant to Florida.

“Nobody will be turned away. We will try to find a way to accommodate everybody, and they can call here if the parents have any questions,” she said, adding that there are also statewide programs available for student financial assistance such as Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarships, better known as Step Up for Students.

Sadowski noted that she has not been in contact with any Catholic school officials in Puerto Rico and that there is no formal coordinated effort locally or nationally to place Puerto Rican students in Catholic schools. But many families may move here for the short term given dire predictions of a prolonged recovery process.

Three weeks after the hurricane, a reported 85 percent of the island was without power, with limited or no communications and a lack of safe drinking water — all prerequisites to operate a school safely. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for $4.9 billion to help Puerto Rico Rebuild.

Meanwhile, family ties to the U.S. mainland may be the first go-to relocation solution for students whose families can afford to leave.

Some one million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, according to the latest U.S. Census data, making it one of several states with large communities of Puerto Ricans, including the Northeast and California. Other regions of the country are beginning to report new enrollment of Puerto Rican children as well.

“Our schools are wonderful, caring places and I don’t think we need to tell them what to do —  they know we are here to support them and they will try to make the (new students) comfortable, to adjust to a new place,” Sadowski said.

“And kids are very good at adjusting,” she added. “This will give them a sense of normality and a sense that life goes on even though they will know that it is temporary.”

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