Over 2,400 evacuees in Osceola schools

By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Over 2,400 students have entered Osceola County District schools since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September.

That’s more students than the average Kissimmee middle school.

Gateway and Osceola High Schools have seen the largest influx, with 135 and 118 students respectively, district officials said.

Dana Schafer, public information officer for the district, said students have enrolled at nearly every school in the county, and each one is trying to find ways to accommodate them.

“It’s a big number, but the students are spread out,” Schafer sad. “So we haven’t seen a major strain on resources yet.”

Osceola County first began counting evacuee students on Oct. 2, about 12 days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. At that point, 34 children had enrolled.

When faculty and students returned from winter break Jan. 8, that number had risen to 2,408.

The growing head count has impacted nearly every aspect of the school corporation, from transportation to language and social services.

Breaking the language barrier is something schools in Osceola County are familiar with, Schafer said. The district’s extensive English as a second language (ESOL) program has traditionally served the area’s large Hispanic community, and is now making the transition smoother for recently arrived Puerto Rican students, Schafer said.

The district, in addition to providing Spanish-English dictionaries to each evacuee child, has hired additional ESOL teachers to keep up with demand.

“I wouldn’t say we have a critical teacher shortage in that area,” Schafer said. “But any teacher who can speak both languages is always beneficial to us.”

Community partnerships have helped provide evacuee students with other resources, such as backpacks filled with school supplies and food for their first Thanksgiving in Florida.

Guidance counselors also are expected to play a major role in the transition process, especially for children still coping with a new home, culture and stress.

Schools are taking a proactive approach to student mental health by encouraging guidance counselors and social workers to reach out to evacuee students once they enroll, Schafer said.

“Just to check in with them, see how they are and if there’s anything their family needs,” she said. “Making a move under those circumstances can be extremely stressful for anyone, especially a child.”

Parents of newly arrived students may also find opportunity with the school district. School officials have been courting adult evacuees to fill much-needed positions like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, teachers and administration support staff.

“There is talent out there, and we are happy to utilize it,” Schafer said.

A major concern for educators across Central Florida is the possibility of new students falling behind academically.

Particularly, officials worried about 11th and 12th graders, who faced different graduation requirements back in Puerto Rico.

A state memorandum sent to school districts Dec. 29 said an agreement with the Puerto Rican Department of Education had been reached, and high school juniors and seniors from the territory could now earn Puerto Rican diplomas at Florida public high schools.

Puerto Rico’s graduation requirements are less stringent than Florida’s, with fewer required credits and no required grade-point average, according to the education department memo.

Evacuee students can still earn a Florida high school diploma, but older students who might have trouble meeting certain state’s graduation requirements — such as required exams in English — can pick the new option.

“Making sure students are in the right classes is our number one priority,” Schafer said. “We don’t want them to get farther behind then they have to.”

Leaders at both the federal and state level have said the exodus of Puerto Rican residents to Florida will likely continue. Schafer said this could mean future funding issues for Osceola County schools.

Despite possible long-term challenges, Schafer said the Osceola County School District would stick by its original message to evacuee students and their families.

“We will welcome them with open arms,” she said. “If they come here, our doors are open.”