I have one student who came here from Puerto Rico after the storm,” said Yahaira Rodriguez, a paraeducator at the Sullivan Middle School
in Worcester. “The language barrier is the hardest
part. He doesn’t speak any English. I translate for
him and other students.
“Also, the school systems here and in Puerto
Rico are very different. In Puerto Rico the schools
are smaller and students don’t go from class to
class — they just stay with one teacher. Here, it is
easy to get lost and confused. It’s hard to process
Her new student, a seventh-grade boy living
in Worcester with his aunt, is one of more than
800 students from the island who have enrolled in
public schools in Massachusetts since Hurricane
Maria struck on Sept. 20, killing at least 51
residents, destroying homes and uprooting lives.
As of late October, about 80 percent of the
island’s residents were still without power. Many
did not have clean drinking water or cellphone
reception, and there were long lines for everything
— from getting money out of an ATM to obtaining
food and fuel.
According to the Department of Elementary
and Secondary Education, the largest numbers
of these “internal refugees” from Puerto Rico
enrolled in schools in Springfield, New Bedford,
Worcester, Lowell, Holyoke, Lawrence and
Rodriguez can relate to the stress that many
from the island are feeling. Her own family is
still living in a mountainous region of Puerto
Worcester educators Elsa Trinidad, Monica
Echevarria, Angela Vega and Yahaira
Rodriguez, from left to right, wore “I Support
DACA” stickers at Sullivan Middle School.
Rico and she can only communicate sporadically
“I tell teachers in my school I know you
can be sympathetic but it’s not the same thing as
having experienced it,” she said, referring both to
newcomers and longtime residents who still have
family members on the island. “Their body is
going to be in school but their mind is not going to
be there. They worry that their family doesn’t have
the luxury of those basic needs of electricity, water
and food. I let them know I understand. My family
is there, too.
“After the storm I came down crying,” she
said. “The students sympathized with me and I
sympathized with them.”
Rodriguez added, “I have a very big family.
My grandfather is 97. They don’t want to leave.
They are afraid that if they leave, people might try
to steal what little they have left.”
School systems such as Worcester’s rely
heavily on bilingual paraeducators to translate for
students and to help them become assimilated.
“Getting assimilated is a slow process,”
Rodriguez said. “Some people don’t understand
how difficult it is to be in a classroom when
you don’t understand the language. You can be
sympathetic, but until you are in that position you
don’t know what it is like.
“It’s not just the language, but also the culture
that is different,” she continued. “Here kids are
from everywhere. They talk different languages and
have different cultures. In Puerto Rico, everyone is
from Puerto Rico. Even the lunches are different.
There they mostly eat rice, beans and chicken for
lunch. Here it is something different every day.”
Rodriguez said she is available to help
families uprooted by the storm to connect with
services, such as signing up for MassHealth. As a
paraeducator, she wishes that the pay and respect
that education support professionals receive
matched their responsibilities and skills — skills
that must be fully deployed when crises strike and
newcomers arrive in the middle of the school year.
Visit massteacher.org/hurricanes to find
opportunities to donate to the victims of
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
‘It’s so bad, even the introverts are marching’
organization, into her curriculum. One unit included
reading a story about a bear that hibernates and
wakes up to find that a factory has been built on top
of him. Suddenly, he is being identified as a worker
and no longer as a bear. This fostered a discussion
Baildon also makes sure that her students have
access to positive images from varied cultures,
including those in a graphic novel with Mexican
superheroes to show that heroes aren’t all white
Baildon, Patten and Harrison were among the
MTA members who attended a Sept. 16 rally in
Boston in support of DACA.
Patten described herself as an introvert, noting
that she had never been to a protest march before
Trump was elected.
“I talk to my students a lot about acting on
their beliefs,” Patten said. “Up until now my way
of participating has been teaching and telling others
Continued from previous page what to do. But that’s no longer enough. I have
to do something. I’ve shown them pictures of me
marching. They are really touched because they
know I’m marching for them.”
Harrison added with a laugh, “It’s so bad, even
the introverts are marching.”
Cheryl Olson, a math teacher from Gloucester,
also felt compelled to attend. “Gloucester was built
on waves of immigrants,” she said. “The more
diversity in the world, the more interesting it is.
“I cannot sit and be silent,” Olson continued.
“That’s what a lot of people did in Nazi Germany.
Even though you get battle fatigue, you have to
be out there. You have to speak out if you want a
Family and community outreach
In response to high dropout rates among Latino
students, Waltham High School hired Mary Jo
Rendón in 2012 as the school’s dropout prevention
specialist. As a result, Waltham has several programs
in place that help students and families navigate the
system in the Trump era.
“I’m a cultural broker in many cases,” said
Rendón, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala
when she was a child.
She helped launch the Waltham High School
Newcomers Academy for recent immigrants who
need extra support. “Some of these students are
illiterate in their own languages, so it is especially
challenging for them to learn to read in English,”
She also has started a Family and Community
Engagement program to create a welcoming climate
at the high school for immigrant families. One
strategy has been to organize monthly Saturday
workshops at which educators and guidance
counselors describe programs and resources offered
at the high school.
“It’s taken about five years to build collaboration
with families,” Rendón said. “At first I had no
parents, then one, and then three.” To get more
families there, she spent hours on the phone and met
them in coffee shops on their own turf. Now she has
about 15 parents and guardians, mostly mothers, who