E nglish learners who arrive in Massachusetts in the middle of the school year after a disaster at home need more than language
instruction and academics. They need new friends
and support from school staff.
Nirvan Serrano, 12, found both at the Sullivan
Middle School in Worcester.
Nirvan and his older sister were sent to the
U.S. in October to live with their aunt and uncle.
Their school in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, was closed
after Hurricane Maria due to a lack of water and
electricity, and their parents had to stay behind.
Stories like Nirvan’s are repeated throughout
the state, with schools welcoming more than 2,300
students since the hurricane.
When he arrived, Nirvan spoke only Spanish.
Two months later, he was asked how his English was
“I know a little bit,” he said. “You speak to me
in English, I know what you say, but I can’t explain
When he first arrived, he experienced culture
“Everything was different,” he said. “It’s so
cold. I like that. In Puerto Rico it’s hot. The lockers
and the lunch are strange for me.” He explained with
the help of hand gestures that in Puerto Rico, the
school schedule remains the same every day, while at
Sullivan the schedule rotates.
Paraeducator Yahaira Rodriguez, assigned to the
seventh-grade classes that took in the newcomers,
said, “At first they were always lost in school. I was
going into the hallway trying to find them because
they were often on a different floor. And then they
couldn’t talk to everybody because they didn’t have
By mid-December, the hurricane refugees were
hearing lessons in English, but they still needed help
After Nirvan’s history and social studies
teacher, David Thompson, explained the next steps
in their project on Egypt, Rodriguez went over the
instructions again in Spanish.
Thompson had also painstakingly recreated
texts about the Egyptian gods and the Nile River in
Spanish using Google Translate so the newcomers
could keep up. While the recently repealed Sheltered
English Immersion law envisioned nearly all
instruction taking place in English, districts had to
take advantage of the proviso that a student’s native
language can be used for clarification.
Asked what went through his mind when
his teacher spoke, Nirvan said, “When he speaks
English, in my head I try to translate into Spanish.
If I don’t know something, I ask Limbert or Ms.
Limbert is Limbert Lavandier, the secret weapon
of the class. A cheerful, helpful student who is fully
bilingual, Limbert arrived in the U.S. when he was in
He picked up the language quickly.
“I was little, so I was like a little sponge,” he
said with a grin. “I remember I would learn how to
Please turn to Happiness/Page 26
Nirvan Serrano received a warm welcome
from students and staff when he came to
Worcester’s Sullivan Middle School from Puerto
Rico. Paraeducator Yahaira Rodriguez helped
Nirvan and other visiting students adjust.
Photo by Laura Barrett
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