For most of us, the devastation wrought by the hurricanes of this autumn has been visible primarily from a distance – on the news, in social media, and through conversations with friends and relatives in impacted areas. It is hard to appreciate, fully, the scope of destruction the hurricanes have caused. In a particularly sad irony, the storms have largely destroyed the fragile infrastructure, the homes and livelihoods, of the residents of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, many of whom struggle for the necessities of life under the best of circumstances.
Worcester is now experiencing the effect of the hurricanes first-hand, as families relocate from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, especially, to Massachusetts, in search of a new beginning. As of last Thursday, fifty-one Puerto Rican students had moved to Worcester with their families since the storms and had enrolled in the Worcester Public Schools (“WPS”). These families face immediate challenges in obtaining the housing and food they need – Worcester agencies have taken decisive steps to try to help here – and they reach out promptly in most instances to enroll their children in school. Fortunately, Worcester has a comprehensive range of services to place these children promptly. They currently attend nineteen public schools across Worcester. The students confront a range of challenges they could never have anticipated a month ago – a new home, a different culture with for many a new primary language, colder weather, new teachers and prospective friends, and a significantly different curriculum. Many have special education programmatic needs as well.
The WPS will address all of these challenges. The children are extraordinarily adaptable, and they should ultimately thrive here. Short-term, the most significant challenge for the WPS will be financial – meeting the needs of these students within the confines of a budget for this school year which could not have anticipated the students or their needs when it was prepared.
The Worcester School Committee has taken the lead in requesting state support for the education of these new students. On my motion, the Committee voted unanimously to urge “that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and secondary Education (“DESE”) extend its October 1 enrollment reporting calculation deadline for students arriving in Massachusetts from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida and other hurricane-damaged regions to permit them to be included in the foundation budget.”
The “October 1 enrollment reporting calculation deadline” is pivotal. Normally, Massachusetts bases its general support for education in a community or school district – “Chapter 70 aid” – in part on the number of students enrolled in the public schools of that community or district as of October 1. Generally, this is logical, as it permits enrollments to stabilize during the first month of the school year before a definitive count is made. This year, however, the students impacted by the hurricanes are all arriving here after October 1. If the state extends the deadline, the fifty-one new Worcester students will all be taken into account for Chapter 70 state aid purposes. Otherwise, they are not.
This will make a significant difference to Worcester financially. For the current fiscal year, the Worcester foundation budget per pupil is $12,356. The foundation budget – the state’s definition of an adequate spending level for a school district, upon which state aid and mandated local spending for education depend – takes into account by special calculations students who are English language learners, or who are “economically disadvantaged”, or who receive special education services, or who attend a vocational school program. All of these factors may result in an increase in the sums the school district is expected to spend per pupil. If DESE can simply increase Worcester enrollment by fifty-one students, and then add the sum of $12,356 per pupil to the foundation budget, Worcester will have, at minimum, an additional $630,156 to spend on its newest students. The figure is likely to be greater than that, as the number of new students from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands increases, and as additional foundation budget funds related to increased English language learner, vocational education, “economically disadvantaged” status, and special education services are taken into account.
Yet these students will bring more than educational needs to our school district. On that account, the School Committee unanimously approved my second proposal – that the WPS “modify the McKinney-Vento grant to the Worcester Public Schools to permit access to funding to address the immediate needs of students from hurricane impacted areas.” The purpose of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant, as summarized by DESE, “is to provide funding for programs that ensure homeless students enroll in school, attend school, and have the opportunity to succeed in school.” Worcester will ask DESE to permit it to reallocate its funding under this grant to meet some of the varied needs Worcester’s new students have upon their arrival here, to allow them to focus their attention more constructively on school and on academics.
Finally, a number of professional educators are among the individuals who have relocated from the hurricane impacted areas to Massachusetts. Many bring to our region a variety of instructional and language skills which could benefit our students, but they face a variety of time-consuming hurdles before they can be awarded licenses to teach in Massachusetts. Thus, the School Committee voted, again unanimously, “to investigate options for licensure for educators who arrive in the Worcester area from Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Texas, Florida, and other hurricane-impacted regions.” If DESE permits these teachers to seek employment under a waiver, while they complete the requirements for licensure in Massachusetts, they will be able to practice their profession here, and thus to earn a living, while sharing their skills with school systems that will truly benefit from them.
Our Committee is optimistic that DESE will consider these requests thoughtfully. If and when it implements them, Worcester, and the other communities of residence of these young people, will be well-situated to provide to them the opportunities which will help them to achieve their best prospect of success, in school, and in whatever paths their future lives will take as well.