YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Following the devastation Hurricane Maria left in Puerto Rico, many people have been traveling to the United States for relief and to be with relatives, meaning their children — who may speak little to no English — are enrolling in local schools.
The hurricane is long gone but Puerto Rico is still struggling to get back to normal. Power and water there continue to be unreliable and schools remain closed.
Youngstown has had a strong Puerto Rican community for decades and after Maria, that community is growing stronger.
The city school district has had to adapt to the new families after the number of students who speak Spanish as their native language doubled in just one month.
Several dozen students at Harding Elementary on the north side are learning to speak English while they learn reading, writing, and math.
“I’m going to tell somebody that only speaks English something and I tell them in Spanish, and they be like, ‘I can’t understand you,'” said student Zaymaries Aponte-Colon.
That language barrier can create issues in the classroom.
“I speak English a bit, so my English is bad,” said Nahomi Lozado Ortega, another student. “I have one person in my class who speaks Spanish, so it’s very hard.”
The school district started the year with 25 students learning English. That number doubled after Hurricane Maria.
“In the month of November, we increased by about 20 students. My caseload right now is about 55 students with about 20 to 25 of them being basic English to no English at all,” said Pamela Abbey, an English teacher for speakers of other languages.
Many leave Puerto Rico on Friday and start school the following Monday.
On Wednesday alone, two more students enrolled. There could be more coming after the holidays, too.
The district uses interpreters, teachers, and parent liaisons to make sure the students and their families are adjusting to their new homes.
“Some of them are sad because they lose everything,” said German Navarro, a parent liaison and interpreter. “But where we are from, there’s something that we say — ‘No matter what happens, you gotta continue forward.'”
And in Youngstown, the school district is ready to help.