Misael Torres started at his new school Wednesday. He arrived on the bus and walked through the doors of Barkley Elementary School in Amsterdam, where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language.
Just weeks earlier, Misael and his family were in Puerto Rico, where they had gone more than 100 days without electricity. His school there was closed for a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. When his school did reopen, it was running on gasoline-powered generators.
“They stayed there; they tried everything, but the economics are no good at all,” said teacher’s aid Maria McWhinnie, who translated for Misael’s parents, Denisse Padilla and Israel Torres, as they visited with Barkley Principal Donna Decker Wednesday morning.
“One of the first things he asked me was what kind of math do we do here, because he is in advanced math,” Decker said of Misael.
The parents smiled after hearing of Misael’s interest in a challenging math course — yes, he does like math, they said.
“He’s a very good kid; he likes to work,” Misael’s mom said.
With seven new Puerto Rican students enrolling at Barkley since the hurricane struck in September, the school has fewer displaced students than most of the district’s other schools. As of last week, 55 students displaced from Puerto Rico had enrolled in Amsterdam schools — the most of any district in the state, outside New York’s five biggest cities, according to enrollment figures from the state Education Department.
Schenectady City School District has also welcomed a wave of Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricane: 43 new students as of Friday. That's enough to land it in the top 10 of districts with displaced Puerto Rican students, according to the state data.
“These kids have been uprooted from what they know as normalcy and are coming to a place with a foreign language and foreign customs and are unprepared,” said Alex Torres, a Scotia-based Latin musician who also freelances as a translator for Schenectady schools.
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Torres, himself of Puerto Rican heritage, helps guide the Puerto Rican families through the district’s screenings, evaluations and special education process. He works out social histories of students and their families, noting any incident or trauma that may impact their ability to learn, and helping school staff better understand their needs. Texting and calling Puerto Rican families throughout the day, he serves as an unofficial parent liaison and cultural broker to the district’s new students.
As Puerto Rico remains mired in hurricane recovery — and debt problems that pre-dated the storm — Torres said he expects more Puerto Ricans to settle in Schenectady and the broader Capital Region.
“This is the latest wave, and it’s not over yet,” Torres said, referring to other Puerto Ricans who have settled in Amsterdam and Schenectady over the years. “It’s the same as those that stay: we hope to return someday, but that someday turns into a lifetime here.”
Since Hurricane Maria devastated the island, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, New York and other parts of the mainland. By the end of 2019, as many 470,000 residents — about 14 percent of the island’s population — will have left in an “exodus” larger than the slow flight caused by a decade of economic stagnation, according to estimates from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
“Support for the relocation of victims of Hurricane Maria would require a broad range of local public services across the country,” the center’s researchers wrote in an October study.
The study estimates that, for the next three years, between 7,000 and 12,000 Puerto Ricans will migrate to New York each year. That is well above the average migration of less than 4,000 Puerto Ricans annually in the three years prior to the storm. Between 1,000 and 3,000 of those annual migrants would be school-age children.
Everyone’s a translator
In his fourth-grade class, Misael was seated next to Anderson Deleon-Palacios, 9, who moved to Amsterdam from Guatemala a year ago. Anderson planned to help Misael settle into school, since he also knows what it feels like to start at a school where he doesn't speak the language, he said in near-perfect English.
“I’m helping him, because I know what he feels,” Anderson said. “When I came here, I feel the same thing. When I came here I didn’t know any English, and they helped me, so I’m going to help him.”
The displaced students are arriving with very little — and in some cases zero — English comprehension. In Amsterdam schools, where there is already an established Spanish-speaking student population, new students are paired with “buddies” who can translate for them.
“It feels like you want to be sad because you don’t know English,” Anderson said, empathizing with Misael. “I was learning and learning until I got it… If I learned English, he can learn too.”
Lisa Barbarino, Barkley’s English-as-a-new-language teacher, asked one of her students to ask Alberto Moldonado, also a Puerto Rican transplant, how old he is.
“I know,” said Keiliany Santiago, who moved to the district from Puerto Rico before the hurricane. “Cuonto anos tu?” she asked Alberto.
“Siete,” Alberto answered. The rest of the class translated nearly in unison: “Seven.”
Like the students, staff members who speak Spanish are also drafted into translation duties, and the district is looking to hire more Spanish speakers. Zuleyka Guadalupe started at Barkley as a teacher’s aide on Monday. On Wednesday, she helped translate for Alberto and his sister Alicia.
Alicia Moldonado, 9, said life and school in Amsterdam was much calmer than what her family left in Puerto Rico, where it took a month to get enough gas to power the generator so her school could reopen. “Tranquilo,” Alicia said of Amsterdam.
“It’s really relaxing and better and more calm,” Alicia said as Guadalupe translated.
When asked what it was like in Puerto Rico, Alicia said “destruido.” Destroyed.
Alberto didn’t miss a beat when asked what he missed most about Puerto Rico.
“Estrano mi perros,” Alberto said. He missed his two dogs.
Did they want to stay in Amsterdam or return to Puerto Rico?
“Que tarce aqui,” Alicia said.
“She wants to stay here,” Guadalupe translated.
Learning Spanish and English
Barbarino on Wednesday morning was working with a group of six Puerto Rican students — three of whom moved to the district prior to the hurricanes, three of whom had moved in the months following the hurricane.
She introduced the students to the story of "Humpty Dumpty," with videos both in English and Spanish and then connected the story to a list of English words they practiced in a series of activities.
“This is what I want you to do; this is going to be funny,” she told the students. “Take off your shoes and put them on your chair.”
“Are you serious?” asked Keiliany, a first-grader who moved to the district before the storms. “No, no, no.”
With a little prodding, Keiliany submitted and removed her shoes. Barbarino asked the students to find different words laid out on the floor and stomp on them with their sock-covered feet.
“It’s not just A for apple,” said Barbarino, who doesn’t speak Spanish fluently but teaches English language learners from many different linguistic backgrounds. “We teach it in the context of a poem or story, and we teach it in English and Spanish.”
Barbarino said it is harder with younger students, who haven’t developed literacy and language skills in Spanish yet but are expected to learn both languages simultaneously. Older students with more developed Spanish-language skills, Barbarino said, can more easily translate their Spanish knowledge base into English.
“They aren’t transferring knowledge,” she said of the younger students. “They are learning from the beginning.”
Finding a home
Puerto Rican migrants have filtered across the country, moving in with family and friends in areas where earlier waves of the island’s growing diaspora had settled.
Lyz Baretty, who has two kids at Pleasant Valley Elementary in Schenectady and one at Mont Pleasant Middle School, also in Schenectady, moved in with her brother in November. He moved to Schenectady with his wife and three kids about seven months ago, after getting a work transfer — barely escaping the storms.
Baretty and her kids cram into the living room, sleeping on a pull-out sofa and air mattress. The house is so full, she said, her kids haven’t been able to open some of their Christmas gifts. There isn’t room for the toys.
Torres said finding a place of their own is one of the biggest challenges the transplants face. While many qualify for public housing support, he said, they are having a hard time finding landlords who will rent to them – partly because some of them haven’t nailed down jobs yet.
“Everybody wants to have their own place; it’s their nest,” Torres said.
Baretty worked as an assistant teacher in Puerto Rico and said she hopes to find similar work, now that she lives in Schenectady. She has enrolled in English classes at Washington Irving and plans to take advantage of a state policy that waived new certification requirements for teachers from Puerto Rico.
“I was very worried because of sickness, rats, dead squirrels in the water,” she said, describing the scene in Puerto Rico with Torres translating for her on Friday. “The water and rivers were being contaminated … I didn’t want my daughters playing in that.”
She wanted to stay in Puerto Rico, but she also wanted to get her kids somewhere their health and education would be assured.
“Obviously, I wanted to stay home because that’s my home. That’s my country. That’s where I live,” she said. “But I knew things were going to be very rough, and I needed to give my daughters a chance to better themselves.”
She asked her kids if they wanted to leave Puerto Rico, promising if they moved they could go back to school — even as she was unsure when they would start class in a new place.
“Someday when Puerto Rico gets back to its regular self, we can always go home,” she said, adding that as of now she had no plans to return.
After meeting with Baretty, Torres took a call from another Puerto Rican mother he has been helping. She was at the Department of Social Services and had good news: she got the final approval to get her own apartment after spending months in a friend’s home.
“Que milagro,” Torres said with a smile — what a miracle. “Felicidades!” Congratulations.