Hillsborough schools: The welcome mat is out for displaced students from Puerto Rico

"We know these students have been through a tragedy and we want these students to feel welcome and safe in our schools," superintendent Jeff Eakins says.

Published October 3 2017
Updated October 4 2017

TAMPA — Students from Puerto Rico and other islands ravaged by recent hurricanes are welcome in Hillsborough County. It says so at the top of the district website, in Spanish.

And now it's a message that has been passed to the principals of the district's more than 240 schools, in writing last week and verbally at Tuesday's School Board meeting.

"They should be welcome in our schools and every effort should be made to enroll the students on the same day," superintendent Jeff Eakins said.

RELATED: Wave of Puerto Ricans fleeing Hurricane Maria devastation may shift Florida landscape

"We know these students have been through a tragedy and we want these students to feel welcome and safe in our schools."

But beyond that sentiment, a lot is unknown about how many children will arrive, where they will live and how their enrollment will affect the schools.

Hillsborough County has one of the state's largest concentrations of Puerto Rican residents, often considered second only to the Orlando area.

In terms of space and infrastructure, Hillsborough is well-equipped for an influx of students who, in many cases, will arrive speaking as much Spanish as English.

The district already is 35 percent Hispanic, with some schools between 75 and 90 percent Hispanic.

English for Speakers of Other Languages programs exist in nearly all the schools. And three in the Town 'N Country area, which is home to a large concentration of Puerto Rican families, have dual-language programs that teach students in English and Spanish simultaneously.

There also are approximately 27,000 empty seats in schools countywide, as many families are leaving the system each year to attend privately managed charter schools.

But there is no guarantee that the new students will find their way to the schools with empty seats.

Area superintendent Marcos Murillo, who left Puerto Rico at age 24 and has spent the last 10 days trying to help his own relatives get out, pointed out that in many cases, wealthier Hillsborough County families will host the families in their own homes.

No one can anyone say with certainty what the numbers will look like. "It could be hundreds, it could be thousands," Murillo said. "And they could come trickling in, little by little."

There also are questions about funding, and there was a tense exchange of words Tuesday as School Board member Lynn Gray referred to the future students as "refugees."

Chairwoman Cindy Stuart pointed out that the students will arrive as U.S. citizens.

And member Susan Valdes, who is Cuban-American but advocates publicly for all Hispanics, seized the opportunity to warn against any kind of prejudice or insensitivity that might occur.

"We all know it's a new day in this nation when it comes to race and ethnicity," she said.

She pointed out that Hillsborough has both an equity policy and an Office of Diversity. And she asked district leaders to consider that, in addition to future arrivals, the schools have many employees who struggle every day to make contact with their own relatives on the island.

"Yet they show up every day to work," she said.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency to assist incoming evacuees who were displaced by Hurricane Maria.

School district leaders hope that action will lead to further steps, including a relaxation of the timetable the district now uses to count student enrollment for funding purposes.

Under the current system, students are not counted for funding purposes unless they are enrolled by Oct. 13.

While agreeing that Puerto Rican students must be welcomed with open arms, board member Melissa Snively said, "I don't want to be dinged" by not getting state funding to cover the cost.