After hurricanes, 80+ displaced students come to Alachua County

Virginia

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Alachua County schools have received 84 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands since Hurricanes destoyed island homes this fall.

Alachua County Public Schools have received more than 80 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after hurricanes ripped through the United States this fall.

The county has taken in 76 students from Puerto Rico and eight students from the Virgin Islands, according to the state Education Department, as of Dec. 26.

Florida has received 11,207 students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in all, state data shows.

In Alachua County, students displaced from natural disasters, whether it be hurricanes or forest fires, are eligible for homeless education resources, secured by the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

“We’re completely aware that if a household is unsettled, it’s difficult for the student to learn,” said Don Fitzpatrick, a curriculum specialist in Alachua County schools’ English for Speakers of Other Languages.

Everett Caudle, the district’s project development director, said the act is designed to remove barriers to education for affected students.

Of students who require ESOL support, Fitzpatrick said, more than half speak Spanish at home. Alachua County school students collectively speak about 40 languages at home.

When entering the district, every student completes a survey about what language is spoken at home. If a language other than English is spoken, the student is screened to determine if ESOL support is necessary.

Students can choose to go to their zoned schools, where their schedules are the same as non-ESOL students’, or go to an ESOL center school — J.J. Finley Elementary, Westwood Middle and Gainesville High — where they go to an ESOL teacher for reading and writing.

The district employs two ESOL family liaisons to help students and parents and a homeless education liaison.

If a student is homeless and enters the district, Caudle said, the priority is to get the student enrolled at and attending school as soon as possible. If a student doesn’t have required documentation, like proof of residency, it can’t be a barrier to enrolling in the district.

It’s especially true for students who moved to the district because of hurricanes.

“They may not have a birth certificate or the normal shot records that we would require,” Caudle said.

Levy County has received 12 students from Puerto Rico, a 0.22 percent increase of its student population. Putnam County has received another 12 students from Puerto Rico, a 0.11 percent increase of its population.

Bradford, Gilchrist, Marion and Union have not received students from Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.

Students receive resources from the McKinney-Vento act, like qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch, even if their families have found temporary housing. Students are eligible for those benefits until their families find permanent, stable housing.

If families need help paying for rent or utilities, schools refer them to outside services.

Last year the district had 800 students qualify for McKinney-Vento benefits. This year, there have been about 400 students.

Last week, Caudle said, a school received two more students displaced from Puerto Rico. While the biggest rush of students is past, he said, more students could come.

“They’re still trickling in,” Caudle said.

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