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Schools ease enrollment to help Puerto Rican students get back to class

David Vera, 17, poses with and his stepfather, Jose Vazquez, Nov. 22 outside of Vazquez's home in Chicago. Vera moved from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria destroyed his childhood home and he lost all of his possessions.

JOHN J. KIM, CHICAGO TRIBUNE/TNS

By MARISSA PAGE | Chicago Tribune | Published: December 8, 2017

CHICAGO -- David Vera got straight A's on his first report card in Chicago. Uprooted from his home in Arecibo after Hurricane Maria leveled his father's house in late September, the 17-year-old senior was among thousands of Puerto Ricans arriving in Chicago in search of a new normal.

For many kids, that meant going back to school. Chicago Public Schools officials said that over the past several weeks, roughly 140 Puerto Rican students have enrolled in 73 schools.

David is staying near O'Hare International Airport with his mom's former partner, Jose Vazquez. Vazquez, 47, said his children have helped David get acclimated at his new school, Taft High School. Vazquez's son Tony, a freshman, rides two buses with David to the school in Norwood Park.

David said the adjustment has been tricky at times.

"I just miss the environment," he said. "I want to go back, but I also don't, if that makes sense."

His old school had around one-tenth the population of Taft, and learning the layout of the sprawling building took some time.

He said he also sometimes struggles to understand the lessons as he is still mastering English, but he likes his courses, such as entrepreneurship and web design.

Hurricane Maria left in its wake a humanitarian crisis and residents without electricity or clean water. The commonwealth does not have a concrete body count, but a government count estimates 55 people have died as a result of the hurricane and its aftermath. Many experts say that number is far too low.

In the months since Hurricane Maria, many of the families now in Chicago have sought assistance at the city's hurricane relief hub at the Humboldt Park Community Center. Andreina Ruvalcaba, a CPS school entry support specialist, has been working with families at the center to get kids enrolled in schools. She said that in the beginning the center helped six or seven families daily, but recently that number has climbed to 12 or 13.

Ruvalcaba said the families are spread throughout the city, but there is a high concentration in the historically Puerto Rican Humboldt Park neighborhood. Most of the students and families she's worked with face a language barrier, and several kids have learning disabilities and require individualized education plans.

"Parents are struggling to enroll their children in special ed programs," Ruvalcaba said. "Our job is to make sure we're getting them situated."

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, co-chairwoman of the advocacy group Puerto Rican Agenda, said her organization urged CPS in October to release a statement about procedures for placing students coming from the island into schools.

"I wanted to see (a letter) in my child's backpack, the same way they laid out their policy of support for students affected by the dismantling of DACA," Pacione-Zayas said. "Whether families are affected or not, they could be allies. It's important for the schools to be very clear about how they are addressing this issue."

CPS published information online in November, and school officials said the district waived enrollment boundaries for students from Puerto Rico.

"These children are entitled to immediate district enrollment, even if they lack access to health, immunization or school records, proof of residency or guardianship or other documentation normally required for district enrollment under non-emergency conditions," CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement. "(I)t's the district's priority to ensure these students are able to enroll and are receiving the support they need."

Lloyd Elementary School in Belmont Cragin currently has 10 families who came from Puerto Rico in the past two or three weeks, Principal Jay Thompson said.

The school is 95.5 percent Hispanic, according to CPS data, and Thompson said its population is largely bilingual. This has made the transition to Lloyd relatively seamless for new students, Thompson said.

"They seem pretty well integrated," he said. "Walking down the halls, I wouldn't be able to tell you who is a new student that has been displaced and who is not."

Thompson said staff and families at Lloyd have been working to gather donations for students and make them feel as comfortable as possible.

The community at Palmer Square's Darwin Elementary School has similarly rallied around their 14 new students, said Daniel Postlethwait, the school's dual language coordinator.

"The real difficulty is making those connections with homes to see what they really need," he said. "We've had students showing up, for example, without coats. So then we get them coats. We took a bunch of kids down into our book room and sent them all home with 15 to 20 books because they don't have access to literature at home."

Postlethwait said the new students underwent evaluations to determine the appropriate programs for them. Evacuees at all CPS schools have access to case managers and liaisons to help them secure necessary supports, district officials said.

At Darwin, Postlethwait said students organized a food drive for hurricane victims and swiftly made friends with their new classmates.

"They could be from Texas," Postlethwait said. "There seems to be a little bit of added distance for some people with them coming from Puerto Rico. But they're American citizens."

Now that the new students at Darwin are more settled, they've been able to enjoy new experiences, Postlethwait said. A few Fridays ago, recess was moved indoors due to inclement weather. But Postlethwait said he sneaked an excited group of Puerto Rican students outside to experience the first snow of the season.

"To have something after all of the tragedy really be simply beautiful, and wondrous and magical," Postlethwait said, with a long pause. "It was a really good way to end the week."

David, the Taft student, said his teachers there have been looking out for him, too. He said there are resources available to him such as after-school tutoring, which he planned to take advantage of. He is planning to finish his senior year in Chicago and hopes his good grades will help him get into college.

Though he misses the warmth of the island and his friends back home, David said he's been able to indulge in some of his favorite hobbies. He loves basketball, and particularly Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors, whom he described as a "great shooter" and "team player."

"When I got here, I went straight to play basketball," David said. "Over there, I played seven days a week."

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