On Wednesday, February 21st, the Board of Alders’ Education Committee held a public workshop to discuss the welfare of recent student arrivals from Puerto Rico. Present at the meeting were a number of social workers, district employees, state and local officials, and representatives from organizations such as Junta for Progressive Action and Wilbur Cross High School. Seated at the back, however, were multiple groups of families—some clutching documents in their hands, others passing coloring books to school-aged children, and still others filtering in and out of the doors toting newborn babies. These families had been invited by the Board of Education to testify on their experience relocating to New Haven following the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rican history—Hurricane Maria.
Five months after the storm struck the island in September of 2017, over 400,000 residents are still waiting for power to be restored to the grid.[i] Many are forced to wait in hours-long lines for basic supplies such as food and water, which are scarce in certain parts of the island. Deteriorating conditions in Puerto Rico have caused over 500,000 residents to leave the territory. As of November, Connecticut had welcomed the second highest number of families from the hurricane after Florida.[ii] With these families come school-aged children in need of continued educational services, but these students often arrive at school lacking the proper documentation for registration. But according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, all students arriving from storm-affected areas who are identified as “homeless or unaccompanied youth” are entitled to receive immediate access to schooling, regardless of whether they are able to present academic or immunization records.[iii]
While many of the families coming from Puerto Rico have connections in the states, they are still considered homeless until they secure a permanent place of residence. Families with no ties rely on social service agencies such as FEMA for housing and other essential supplies.[iv] But as testifying officials were quick to point out at the meeting, funding from FEMA that currently supports programs from Hurricane Maria survivors is set to run out on March 20th of this year. At that time, families currently residing in FEMA hotels will be displaced, with some having nowhere else to go.
It was the weight of this impending deadline that hung over the room as community member after community member got up to testify. School district officials spoke of issues with school registration processes—as many students came without their academic records, schools were having difficulty determining what placements or special education services students may need. Administrators are also struggling to make room for new students as they arrive midway through the year, both in terms of placing them in actual classrooms and enrolling them in supplementary programs, such as English Language Learner classes. The Junta representative illustrated the challenges of providing for families’ basic needs, such as housing, food, school supplies, and winter coats and clothing. Junta also offers other services to families, including job training and English language programs. But following March 20th, the Junta center will be the only one left in Connecticut that Puerto Rican families can access.
In his testimony before the room, Daniel Diaz, a Parent Advocate for New Haven Public Schools, informed the committee that “we could have done more with more resources.” He encouraged the board to keep this in mind as they decided how or whether they would continue to support these families, arguing that New Haven must treat these families well “because it is the right, human thing to do for anyone coming here not by choice.”
But while Daniel Diaz’s testimony may have made it seem as if New Haven had not supported Hurricane Maria survivors to the best of its ability, this was far from the case—Diaz and others were focusing on the issues evacuees had been facing in order to evoke a response from the committee. In reality, New Haven appears to have been proactive in preparing for and supporting Puerto Rican families in their move to New England. William Clark, the Chief Operating Officer of New Haven Public Schools, praised Mayor Toni Harp for welcoming these families with “open arms.” Indeed, some of the highest praise came from Puerto Rican families themselves, who expressed gratitude to the city of New Haven numerous times throughout the meeting for making them feel at home. One such man, Adrian Colon, who is currently residing with his wife and two children in a FEMA hotel, thanked the city for everything it has done to create a sense of safety for his family. He emphasized that, “Back home, Puerto Rico is not safe,” citing numerous issues with electricity, clean water, housing, and conflict as reasons for why he hopes never to return to the island. Other families who agreed to testify shared similar concerns, promising that if they continued to receive support from the city they had plans to establish themselves in the community and “grow as professionals.”
At the end of the workshop, after all those who had been invited to testify had spoken, the committee opened up the testimonies to the public. A representative from Wilbur Cross High School came to the stage. He began to speak of all the ways in which members of the New Haven Community had taken individual action to support evacuees over the course of the year. From organizing food drives, to distributing holiday gift baskets, to inviting Puerto Rican families to neighborhood block parties and holiday events, New Havenites demonstrated their ability to collectively work towards a greater cause.
The representative’s testimony was a fitting end to a meeting in which democratic processes were respected and upheld. While the committee invited public officials to testify first, it was careful to incorporate the testimonies of numerous Puerto Rican families, as well as to open the forum up to public participation. At the end of the meeting, one committee member thanked everyone for their statements and then asked a single question, open to public response—“How can we support you?” His question left me with the impression that the good old-fashioned, town hall democracy of yesteryear was alive and well. Simultaneously, it reminded me of Schumpeter’s suggestion that we should forego the idea that people can directly participate in government and accept the fact that voters rely on politicians to represent their preferences in government.[v] Fortunately for the Puerto Rican families, the committee voted to pen a letter to FEMA urging them to keep their hotels and services open past March 20th. In this instance of democratic exchange, New Haven community members were successful in evoking accountability and response from local government. Moreover, the sheer number of participants present at the meeting combined with their enthusiasm to share their experiences left me feeling hopeful for the future of democratic participation.
[i] Krasselt, Kaitlin. (2017) “Connecticut school districts struggle to find room for displaced Puerto Ricans.” The Hour. Retrieved from https://www.thehour.com/news/article/Connecticut-school-districts-stuggle-to-find-room-12453316.php
[iii] Krasselt, Kaitlin. (2017) “Connecticut school districts struggle to find room for displaced Puerto Ricans.” The Hour. Retrieved from https://www.thehour.com/news/article/Connecticut-school-districts-stuggle-to-find-room-12453316.php
[v] Schumpeter, Joseph. 1947. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. Chapters 21 and 22.