Donegan Elementary School is a part of the Bethlehem Area School District, where 76 students that were affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico have recently enrolled. Families affected by the hurricane have traveled to seek refuge in the Lehigh Valley. (Ian Smith/B&W Staff)

Puerto Rican families seek refuge in the Lehigh Valley after Hurricane Maria

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An estimated 64,000 people of Puerto Rican heritage live in the Lehigh Valley.

After Hurricane Maria made landfall and ravaged the island in September, some families fled to seek comfort and refuge in the Lehigh Valley. As a result, local schools have started admitting children who left the desolation in Puerto Rico to start over.

Bethlehem area superintendent Joseph Roy said as a public school district, Bethlehem schools are accepting all students regardless of circumstance. He said the magnitude of Hurricane Maria’s destruction has led to an increased number of Puerto Rican families seeking refuge in Bethlehem.

Roy said the Bethlehem Area School District has accepted 76 students so far and is expecting a minimum of 100 students total.

“The level of devastation to Puerto Rico, particularly the damage to the electrical grid and the lack of potable water, creates very, very difficult survival circumstances,” Roy said. “Since many people in Puerto Rico have relatives on the mainland, it makes sense they will evacuate here for a period of time.”

The Puerto Rican Beneficial Society of Bethlehem declined to comment on this matter.

Roy said students are enrolled in the school district that coincides with the area their families settle in.

“(Students) must be enrolled, even if they lack transcripts from the previous school,” Roy said. “Our center for language assessment assesses their English language skills as well as their academic levels, and then works with the school in their neighborhood to assign their coursework.”

Roy believes the district is prepared for the large number of Puerto Rican students fleeing disaster and does not anticipate major changes to classroom settings.

“In a sense, because we are large and have a strong (English as Second Language) program, we are prepared for these students,” Roy said. “With the students spread across our 22 schools, depending on grade level and home address, there is not an undue burden on classrooms.”

Allentown School District is another public school district in the Lehigh Valley that has started accepting students escaping disaster in Puerto Rico.

Thomas Parker, the superintendent of the Allentown School District, said Allentown schools are welcoming the children and providing additional support to accommodate them in their transition.

Lucretia Brown, the director of equity for the Allentown School District, said as of Nov. 10, the Allentown School District has enrolled 197 students as Hurricane Maria evacuees.

“As a district, we are providing additional assistance with the enrollment process, providing school uniform vouchers when needed and connecting families to community resources,” Brown said.

Parker said these families help build the Allentown community.

“Accepting our Puerto Rican neighbors helps build community through the demonstration of empathy, establishment of a sense of belonging during a time of need and honoring the humanitarian aspect during a time of uncertainty for these families,” Parker said.

Parker said the Allentown School District has assisted families displaced by a natural disaster in the past and their efforts in assisting families in need today have not changed.

He said the district’s post-hurricane efforts are no different from how they have responded in the past. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Allentown School District received and accommodated students.

Parker said the process of admission for the students entering Allentown schools requires specific documentation, but due to the hurricane, families who do not have proper documentation qualify under The McKinney–Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987.

The Allentown School District’s homeless children and youth initiative identifies students experiencing homelessness and implements strategies to address barriers to enrollment, attendance and participation in school activities.

Parker said under the law, students experiencing homelessness are entitled to education on an equal basis as other children as well as immediate enrollment, even if they lack records. They are also eligible to receive special assistance from the Allentown School District Homeless Liaison.

Parker anticipates there will be a greater demand for English as a Second Language teachers in Allentown schools. He said Allentown School District leadership is prepared to do all that it can in assisting these students in their transition to a new life.

“District leadership continues to assess our process in assisting families as we move forward,” Parker said. “We have a wealth of community partnerships we continue to collaborate with to meet the needs of our evacuee families.”

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