Palm Beach County has 81 hurricane refugee students and counting

Oct 06, 2017
Families board planes at a private terminal at San Juan International Airport, Puerto Rico, a city on the southern coast of the island on Friday, September 29, 2017. Much of Puerto Rico’s more than 3 million inhabitants are without power and many are without running water days after Hurricane Maria wrecked the island. Tens of thousands have fled the island after the storm.

Florida’s public schools are working to ease the path to enrolling students who come to the state from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and beyond. Already about 81 student refugees have arrived in Palm Beach County, and hundreds more are headed to class in the other large urban districts, officials report.

Steps taken Friday by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Department of Education waived rules that demand students present birth certificates, proof of address, shot records and transcripts in order to enroll.

But one request by lawmakers that the state delay its October student head count, the one that determines each school and district’s per-student budget was met with less flexibility. The school gets about $7,200 per student to cover education costs.

A memo to superintendents referred to Florida administrative codes that allow an alternate survey to be done within nine weeks of the first – that would be no later than Dec. 15, 2017.

But for that second count to be applied to a district’s budget, enrollment must increase by at least 5 percent. In Palm Beach County, that would mean an additional 9,500 students would have to show up. An individual school could quality if it saw its rolls grow by at least 25 percent – a scenario that seems unlikely.

Puerto Rican schools have been closed since Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20. The Wall Street Journal reports they could be up and running again by Oct. 16. Still, the news organization quotes Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York as saying he estimated more than 200,000 parents and their children will head to the mainland in the storm’s wake.

The 81 students transferring into Palm Beach County schools come not only from Puerto Rico, but also Texas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and even the Florida Keys as a result of a busy hurricane season that has included Harvey and Irma in addition to Maria, district spokeswoman Kathy Burstein said.

The students that have arrived so far are spread throughout the district’s elementary, middle and high schools, with no concentration at any particular school, district officials report.

The students could quickly see some familiar faces at the head of the class. The department’s actions include speeding the process to allow teachers to work here using their Puerto Rican teaching certificates.

Earlier in the week, Christ Fellowship Church delivered 150 donated back packs to the district’s welcome center on Forest Hill Boulevard. The packs were filled with school supplies for the student transplants, who often arrive with little.

State officials also cleared room for 20,000 more students to enroll in Florida Virtual School. Established 20 years ago, the online institution is free to Florida residents but typically charges tuition to everyone else.

Meanwhile, state officials said they’ll wait and see if they need to alter the statewide testing schedule.