Girl on Bus

A girl stares out the window of an Alachua County school bus on West University Avenue.

Alligator File Photo

When Andrea Ruiz left her hometown of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, she expected to return in about a month.

Three months later, Ruiz and her family are still in Miami. Ruiz moved to Florida on Oct. 10, a month after Hurricane Maria left her hometown, and much of Puerto Rico, without power.

Ruiz misses home, but she knows she’s one of the lucky ones. She still worries about the future of Puerto Rico’s schools, especially the neglected public schools.

“Everything was destroyed, and it was such a big catastrophe,” the 16-year-old said. “Yeah, I had a chance to come here and be better off, but just leaving my island so destroyed. It’s hard to see what’s happening to everyone.”

Ruiz is one of 10,324 Puerto Rican students who came to Florida due to power outages in their schools and neighborhoods.

A report issued in December by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York estimates nearly a 5 percent increase in the number of Puerto Rican students enrolled in Florida schools since Hurricane Maria hit in September.

“It was quite hard leaving everything so sudden,” Ruiz said. “You don’t expect that change.”

Ruiz came to Florida expecting to attend a local public school, but was denied by two schools in Miami-Dade County. The first school, Ronald W. Reagan High School, gave her a uniform and offered her a spot, only for the principal to turn her away on the first day because the school was overbooked. After a two week search, Ruiz enrolled in St. Brendan High School, a private Catholic school in Miami.

“For us, it was quite hard to enter a school because they would tell us every time, ‘No you can’t be here, no you can’t be here,’” Ruiz said. “They say it’s gonna be easy and you come here thinking that public schools have to accept us no matter what, but it wasn’t like that.”

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Edwin Meléndez, the director of Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies, said the education report works to provide a reliable indicator of how many Puerto Rican families might stay permanently in Florida as their children attend school.

The report, which uses data collected from the Florida Governor’s office and school district surveys, looks at student enrollment data because families who enroll their children in school are more likely to remain in the state, he said.

“Some of the figures that are floating around, especially from the governor’s office, say that more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived to Florida,” he said. “The problem is that we really don’t know how many of them are going to stay.”

Florida schools did not anticipate the influx of more than 10,000 students in about three months, Meléndez said. Certified bilingual teachers are scarce, and high school juniors and seniors need special academic counseling to meet Florida’s strict graduation requirements.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rican schools continue to close as a result of low enrollment. Severe damage further strained Puerto Rico’s education system, disproportionately affecting rural communities, Meléndez said.

The report focused on K-12 students, so the number of Puerto Rican high school graduates moving to attend Florida colleges is unclear, Meléndez said.

Alachua County Public Schools received 76 students from Puerto Rico and eight students from the U.S. Virgin Islands since Hurricane Maria made landfall, according to ACPS spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. More students from hurricane-battered areas are still expected to come.

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Lymaries Velez, a second-year UF medical student, gets emotional thinking about her family in Puerto Rico.

The 22-year-old shed a tear during a Latino Medical Student Association panel in October while a UF doctor discussed her struggles moving to the U.S. from Peru.

Velez said the discussion hit close to home because her aunt, Yari Lugo, and 10-year-old cousin, Sofia, would have the same experience when they moved from Puerto Rico in the coming weeks.

“I know a lot of people who have come here and struggled to get to where they are, but I’ve never seen it from the beginning, and I was about to see it from my aunt’s point of view,” she said.

Velez’s aunt, Lugo, worked as a nail technician for more than 20 years and is now a janitor working toward a new nail certificate. She lost her job in Barceloneta, a suburban area in northern Puerto Rico, after her salon lost power.

Unable to secure a job in Puerto Rico, Lugo moved to Lakeland, Florida, in late October to live with Velez’ family. She enrolled Sofia in an elementary school where she takes ESOL, or English for speakers of other languages, classes.

Although Sofia is coping well in school, she is sometimes frustrated by the language barrier, Velez said.

“It’s a family effort because my parents were done raising me, and now they all of a sudden have to teach my cousin English,” she said.

After talking to two of the panel members, Dr. Victoria Bird and Dr. Giuliano De Portu, Velez decided to start the Puerto Rico Relief Initiative to collect supplies and raise money for those still on the island.

Along with Bird and De Portu, Velez works on the relief initiative with UF College of Medicine’s Dr. Maria Velazquez and Dr. David Hernandez Gonzalo. The group hopes to become an official nonprofit.

The initiative hosted a donation drive called “Stand With Puerto Rico” in December to collect hygiene products, mosquito repellant and first aid kits, Velez said.

Four Puerto Rican students from the San Juan Bautista School of Medicine were able to study at UF Health Shands for about two months until their college and local hospital recovered from hurricane damage, Velez said. Two of the students spoke at the event.

As her family adjusts to life in Florida, Velez said she wishes for the public to remember Puerto Rico even as media coverage declines.

“It’s a lot worse than it ever seemed, and it continues even if you don’t hear about it,” Velez said.

Contact Amanda Rosa at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @AmandaNicRosa.