Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have fled devastated Puerto Rico for the continental United States since Hurricane Maria. Many have left the island for Bismarck and Mandan, where their families and friends reside.
Their move to the Peace Garden State presents significant challenges, including learning a new language, securing housing and finding jobs. They are enrolling their children in school, which, for these students, means navigating an entirely new education system.
About 40 students from Puerto Rico have enrolled in Bismarck and Mandan schools since September.
As the number of English learners has increased in recent years, local districts are adapting by hiring additional teachers and staff. Bismarck and Mandan received federal funding this year for more instructional aides for English learners, as well as other services. Mandan also is considering opening a Welcome Center, similar to the center established for Bismarck English learners in grades K-5.
A cultural challenge
Juan Duran left his family and his hometown of Lares, Puerto Rico, five years ago for a "better life, a better future" in Mandan.
Three years later, after finding some stability and a place to live for his family still in Puerto Rico, he brought his wife, Maria Duran, and their two daughters, Nayelie and Karina.
Now, Juan Duran has brought his wife's parents, Roberto Acevedo, 75, and his wife, Miriam Marti, 73, to Mandan, who were displaced by the hurricane. They arrived on Oct. 27.
The move has been difficult for Acevedo and Marti. They left their home of more than 20 years, which was destroyed in the storm. They came here with only the clothes on their backs.
Acevedo said, day by day, he has been taking in his surroundings and the new culture. For Marti, the move has been particularly difficult.
"(It's been) very sad," Marti said through a translator in an interview earlier this week at her daughter and husband's apartment. She choked up, explaining how she wishes to be back on the island, where her family and friends remain.
When Acevedo and Marti left their home in Utuado, Puerto Rico, there was no electricity nor water, and they had to wait for help to come with food. They stayed in their home even after the hurricane hit, finding whatever inhabitable space they could.
Acevedo marvels at the beauty of North Dakota's landscape — they often take the scenic route around town. He's also a Vietnam veteran and said the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs services here are good.
Acevedo and Marti sleep on a mattress in Juan and Maria Duran's living room. They make it work, and Acevedo said he's used to sleeping wherever you can, because in the Army you made do with what you had.
Many Puerto Ricans akin to Acevedo and Marti feel guilty after leaving the island. Juan Duran spoke about the challenges he encountered after moving to Mandan in 2012. He said he woke up the day after he arrived and wondered if he made the right decision by moving here, far away from the rest of his family.
"The secret in that situation is to adapt," Juan Duran said.
Acevedo and Marti said they are happy he's able to see their two granddaughters and new great-granddaughter. They are unsure if they want to stay; Acevedo said his wife already misses home, so it is likely they will go back. It's difficult, though, because health care is more accessible here, he said.
The Durans have decided to make North Dakota home. Juan Duran said they still have a house in Puerto Rico, not completely destroyed by the storm, but because the situation is dire in Puerto Rico he does not see them returning.
Juan Duran's daughter, Nayelie, is a junior at Mandan High School. She said she plans to graduate from high school then go on to college to become a nurse.
An influx of Puerto Rican students in Bismarck-Mandan has presented a challenge for local educators — one of which they and other schools officials are welcoming.
Jennifer Bina is a Bismarck EL teacher, who teaches students in kindergarten and first grade. English learners are invited to Bismarck's Welcome Center, where they are given an English proficiency test and assigned a level of proficiency.
Because English learners are at many different levels, this can be difficult for educators, such as Bina, who also has students enroll during the middle of the school year.
One day last month in her classroom, students worked on English letters, sounds and vocabulary. On a wall of her classroom, she has hung photos of each student, which she calls picture cues. These photos help the students know which assignment they should be tackling. Also, Bina uses color coordination throughout her classroom, which she says helps with classroom management.
Michael Cruz, an aide and interpreter, scurried around Bina's classroom helping translate for the students. Most of the students in the classroom speak Spanish and are from Puerto Rico.
"It's a challenge for them," Cruz said. "Coming from a new country, it can be overwhelming."
EL teachers and instructional aides train these students to be prepared to engage at new schools. The first step is teaching them the new language, and then they have to speak it.
Cruz recalled a student earlier this year, whom he had spoken to in Spanish and welcomed him to the classroom. The student was overwhelmed by all of the new information, and all he could get out was, "No hablo Ingles."
The number of English learners in Bismarck and Mandan has been increasing. Bismarck has about 260 English learners. Tamara Uselman, superintendent for Bismarck Public Schools, says she embraces the new students to the district and said they bring with them a new culture, which is beneficial to other students.
In response to EL population growth, Uselman said BPS added three EL teachers this year — one at each level: elementary, middle and high schools.
There are nearly 100 English learners in Mandan, 81 of whom are from Puerto Rico.
Mandan Public Schools Superintendent Mike Bitz said district officials are weighing the pros and cons of opening a Welcome Center, which will likely be discussed next year.
"We couldn’t consider a Welcome Center before because we didn’t have the numbers to justify that," Bitz said.