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Buffalo schools embrace 400 children from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico

The boy and girl arrived in the morning darkness, well before school started, and sat in the main office nursing a case of the butterflies.

It was the kind you get on the first day at a new school.

“They’re nervous,” their mother, Angelica Nieves, said through an interpreter.

Griselirys, 11, and Michael, 7, were signing up at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy on Carolina Street, the latest in a long line of students from Puerto Rico to arrive in Buffalo over the past three months following Hurricane Maria.

For the students, the abrupt change can mean giving up their homes and friends on the island to move in with relatives here while dealing not only with the weather, but with a new language, new classmates and teachers, and a different type of school environment.

For the school, it means not only educating dozens of new students — many still learning English — with the same number of classrooms and teachers. It also means helping the kids and their families with the basic necessities as they start a new life.

The school district had anticipated that Buffalo — with its strong ties to Puerto Rico — would see an influx of students displaced by Maria. It was right.

As of last count, the district had enrolled 418 students from the U.S. territory since the powerful hurricane walloped the island last September.

Their numbers continue to climb — as they have elsewhere, too.

The State Education Department reported that 2,050 displaced students from Puerto Rico enrolled in districts across New York State, with the largest numbers in Rochester and New York City, followed by Buffalo.

In Buffalo, many of those students registered in one of the district’s four bilingual elementary schools, including Herman Badillo. The school of 800 is accustomed to taking in new students throughout the year. But this is different.

"Nothing like this," said Kim Meissner, a veteran teacher.

It's been an adjustment for the new arrivals — and for the school.

“On some days,” said William Breen, the counselor at Herman Badillo, “there’s been four or five new families.”

Losing almost everything

Griselirys and Michael arrived early for their first day accompanied by their mother; their father, Samuel Reyes; and their grandfather, Leonardo Nieves. Similar scenes have played out over and over again since October.

The five waited patiently in the main office during the morning rush, amid substitute teachers picking up their rosters, a girl looking for her backpack, and a mom asking about school pictures. When the activity finally subsided, the attention turned to the new family.

The two kids and their parents lived near a river in Puerto Rico. When the hurricane struck, the water overflowed the banks and practically swallowed the family’s home.

They lost almost everything.

They stayed with Samuel’s mother, lived on canned food and crackers and waited in line two hours at a time for bags of ice. They gathered up enough money for plane tickets out, leaving behind their old lives, their old school and the family’s two dogs.

That was a month ago.

They have been living with Leonardo, Angelica’s father, in South Buffalo, until recently finding an apartment a couple of doors away.

“This is the typical story, really,” said Breen, the counselor. "They're staying with family. There's all those difficulties of being in someone's home, being cramped for awhile.

“It takes a long time just for families to start breathing again,” he said.

School here 'very different'

Angelica finished the paperwork in the office and the family moved to the room next door to fill out medical forms with the school nurse, who asked about the kids.

Griselirys is in fifth grade. She likes math and science and playing games on her tablet. She enjoyed her old school, which was small and felt like home. Her brother, Michael, is in second grade.

Neither has been to school since before the hurricane.

School in Buffalo will be an adjustment — new surroundings, new language, new curriculum.

Kids in the north are cooped up in school compared to Puerto Rico, where the school design is more open to take advantage of the warmer climate and outdoors, Breen said.

“It’s just very, very different,” he said. “In Puerto Rico, oftentimes if a teacher is absent kids are sent home.”

Meissner stopped in the nurse's office to welcome the school's newest family.

Once students displaced by Hurricane Maria began arriving at Herman Badillo, Meissner organized a winter clothing drive. The bounty of boots and coats and toiletries was once so large it threatened to overrun her classroom and the space behind the stage in the auditorium.

Meissner brought the family a bag of food and a backpack filled with personal items. She asked Angelica for the kids' sizes and promised to search her donations for winter jackets.

“The needs have changed,” Meissner said. “People need towels and sheets and things for the kitchen, because many are starting to move into apartments."

By this time, another displaced family from Puerto Rico had just arrived in the office. This, too, would be the first day for their kindergartner at Herman Badillo.

More kids, same space

Enrollment at the school has shot up 15 percent since families from Puerto Rico seeking refuge from the storm began arriving in October, said Maria Cala, acting principal.

That's an additional 100 kids.

“It gets tricky,” Cala acknowledged, “but we’ll make it work.”

It's definitely shaken up things in the building, said Jennifer Jalil-Contreras, the social worker at Herman Badillo.

“It’s 100-plus kids — and the same amount of teachers, the same amount of rooms," she said of enrolling extra students without having extra space or extra teachers.

"But," said Jalil-Contreras, who helps the students and their families get the support they need, "it’s been great to be here and help them. And the teachers are very welcoming.”

The spike in students from Puerto Rico is similar at the other bilingual schools. They include Frank A. Sedita School, which has taken in 61 students; D’Youville Porter Campus School, 66; and the Bilingual Center, 82, according to district figures.

There are still seats available in the bilingual schools, although the numbers arriving have tapered off as of late, district officials said.

“How many more will we get?” faculty ask.

“As many as they send,” Cala replies.

Cala walked the siblings through the school, until they came to Michael's classroom.

Cala introduced the boy to his new teacher, Sara Rosenberry, who took him in the hall and assigned him locker No. 14. Michael hung his backpack and pullover inside. He kissed his mom, hugged his dad and stepped through the doorway into the unknown.

His sister, Griselirys, was led up the stairs to a classroom on the third floor, where she received a warm greeting from Nadia Heredia, her new teacher.

“Hi, how are you?” Heredia said to the girl. “What’s your name?”

Introductions completed, Griselirys turned and gave her mother a peck on the cheek. She walked into the room to face her new classmates.

“Class,” Heredia announced, “we have a new student today.”

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