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Puerto Rican Students Head To The Mainland For School

Andrea Cecilia, 16, and her sister Amidala Amira, 8, wait in the San Juan airport for their flight to Miami.
Elissa Nadworny

It's not exactly how Deilanis Santana planned to spend her 13th birthday: waking up before dawn, packing up her life – and heading to Connecticut to live with her grandma.

But here she is at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, three weeks after Hurricane Maria, waiting anxiously like many other Puerto Ricans for flights to destinations like Miami, Philadelphia, and other cities. The gates are crowded with children — Deilanis among them — leaving their homes, and sometimes their families, to live in the U.S. mainland and go to school.

On the other end of the flight is the promise of electricity, running water, cell service and homework.

"It's gonna be really interesting," Deilanis says, clutching her brightly colored backpack. "I had a lot of friends here and it was really hard to say goodbye to them because some I've known since first grade. I don't know what I'm going to do."

She'll be continuing eighth grade on Monday in West Hartford. She won't know anyone at the school, which makes her nervous.

"I don't really know about the school, what classes I'll take or anything," she says. One thing she does know: There isn't a cursive class, "which is really good because I can't write in cursive very well. It's just little scribbles."

Deilanis Santana, 13, and her great aunt, Lillian Mercado, begin to board their flight from Miami to Hartford, Conn.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Deilanis Santana, 13, and her great aunt, Lillian Mercado, begin to board their flight from Miami to Hartford, Conn.

Deilanis is flying with her grandmother's sister, Lillian Mercado, who frequently consults the index card in her purse that lists their travel instructions. Deilanis' mother wrote it out for them the day before, dotting all the "i"s with hearts. She's staying behind in Cidra, Puerto Rico, to fix the house – which suffered a lot of damage. Maybe she'll come visit in November or December, says Deilanis.

"It's a bad situation," explains Mercado, "we're trying to survive, but it's not going to be easy."

It's a part of a historical exodus from the island that has accelerated since the hurricane. In the last 10 years, nearly half a million people have left Puerto Rico, creating large populations of Puerto Ricans in big cities like New York, Chicago and Orlando and smaller ones, like Hartford and Springfield, Mass.

Nearly 30,000 people from Puerto Rico have arrived in Florida, according to the governor's office.

Many school districts are preparing for the influx of students: In Orlando, the district plans to waive some of the documents required to enroll, in order to help streamline the process.

The Miami-Dade County schools plan to send administrators to San Juan to help register students. There's also an outreach for teachers. At the Orlando airport, human resource officers from the Orange County school district are conducting job interviews on the spot, when teachers de-plane.

Back home on the island, the recovery is hard and slow. As of this writing, is still without power. Of the 1,113 schools in Puerto Rico, only about 200 have reopened, mostly due to lack of electricity and debris. Puerto Rico's secretary of education, Julia Keleher, estimates students' have lost between 35 and 40 instructional days because of Maria. She told NPR she anticipates lengthening the school year for a couple weeks in June.

But missing almost 40 days of school has dramatic ramifications. Research shows that if students miss just 10 percent of the school year-- which is usually about two weeks of school — they're at high risk of falling behind academically and are way more likely to eventually drop out.

That's a stress that weighs heavily on Glisela Vega Rivera, who I met in the San Juan airport, waiting to board a flight to Miami with her three children.

"I live all my life here," she says, pausing, "but I have three kids, so we have to do it."

The plan is to go to Florida just for a few months. "We'll just wait and see what happens back here," says Vega Rivera. "There's no electricity, no water where we live, so my husband can't work, and the kids aren't in school."

Glisela Vega Rivera and her three children wait to board a flight to Miami. The family is relocating to Doral, Fla., where her two older kids will start school at Ronald W. Reagan/Doral High School next week.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Glisela Vega Rivera and her three children wait to board a flight to Miami. The family is relocating to Doral, Fla., where her two older kids will start school at Ronald W. Reagan/Doral High School next week.

Her husband's company arranged their travel to Florida and is helping get them set up — with housing, transportation and school enrollment. "We don't know nothing," she says, "they're gonna pick us in the airport. His company is our savior right now."

The two older kids — both in high school — are supposed to go to Ronald W. Reagan/Doral Senior High School in Doral, Fla. Her oldest, Gabriel André, is starting his senior year.

"I'm hoping I don't have to start right away," he says, "let me at least unpack!" His younger sister, Andrea Cecilia, will be at the same school, which, she tells me, will be nice. But she's still worried about meeting people, the different classes and if she'll have to wear a uniform.

Their mom is also a bit nervous — about getting everything squared away with the school, making sure their records follow them, and that everything can transition smoothly.

"It's really a leap of faith," she says.

A few hours later, Deilanis and Lillian Mercado's plane starts the decent over Miami, and Deilanis strains her neck to watch the high rises that line the coast below. Out the window, she spots a rainbow. A good symbol she says, smiling.

"The best advice I have is just, be yourself, and you'll attract people," she explains, in part to me and in part to herself. "When everything is normalized," we'll return.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.
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