TAMPA — About two months ago, Pillipe Gutiérrez escaped Colombia with his wife and 15-year-old son, fleeing extortion and violence.
Now that Gutiérrez and his family are in Tampa, a new challenge emerged for the 42-year-old father: getting his son enrolled in 11th grade.
“This is our highest priority,” Gutiérrez said. “Studies must come first. Everything else can wait.”
Navigating the school system and paperwork can be tough for anyone. But it can be even more challenging for people like Gutiérrez and his son, Pillipe Jr., who don’t speak English.
The public schools hosted a three-day event this week at Leto High School for new immigrant students and their families where they could get help with registration, enrollment and immunizations. Most of them came from Latin America and the Caribbean. Leto High School’s enrollment is predominately Hispanic.
A similar initiative took place previously to help Puerto Rican students who evacuated the U.S. territory because of natural disasters. Many came with their families after Hurricane María in 2017 and the 2019 earthquake.
Mónica Verra-Tirado, chief of diversity, equity and inclusion for Hillsborough County Public Schools, said the schools are always developing new programs to integrate students.
“We know that we can do something else for the families and our students,” said Verra-Tirado. “That’s why we have this center.”
Florida has the third-largest Hispanic student population in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In the Tampa Bay area, the percentage of Latino students has been on an upward trend for the past five years, with more than 80,000 students in Hillsborough County identifying as Hispanic. During the 2021-22 school year, 38% of students identified as Latino in Hillsborough. In Pinellas, it was 19%, and in Pasco, it was nearly 25%.
Valeska Torres, 27, who was born in Honduras, needed help to make sure her 6-year-old daughter, Sofía, was enrolled in her zoned school and was up-to-date on her vaccines. Torres, who went on Tuesday, was happy to find a welcoming atmosphere.
“It seemed a little bit complicated,” Torres said, “but now it’s much better thanks to the help and advice of all these people.”
Torres applauded the work of bilingual volunteers and specialists who explained the basic steps to ensure that her daughter could start her first grade at Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa.
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Gutiérrez and his son were also impressed with the number of Latino families and students in the Tampa Bay area. Gutiérrez said he flew to México with his family and later applied for asylum in the United States.
In Colombia, Gutiérrez — who worked as a welder and sold steel supplies — had been the victim of extortionists and criminals who called him and left messages saying they would hurt his family. Gutiérrez said many end up giving in to the criminals’ demands and don’t report them to the police because they are afraid to speak up.
He didn’t want to be like them.
“I decided to move and protect my loved ones,” Gutiérrez said.
Pillipe Jr. praised his father’s decision and is ready to start school. He said knowing there are many Hispanics like him in the school district gives him confidence to take a new step and achieve his dream of becoming a soccer player when he graduates from high school.
“That’s what I want to be,” said Pillipe Jr. “But for now, I have to focus on my studies.”