The Effects of Displacement on Puerto Rican K-12 Students in Florida after Hurricane Maria

Molly Hamm-Rodríguez
University of Colorado Bouder

Astrid Sambolín Morales

Publication Date: 2018


This study examines the effects that displacement had on the education of Puerto Rican children and youth who arrived in Florida after Hurricane Maria, as well as the impacts to their families. Particular emphasis is placed on (1) policies and programs enacted by the School District of Osceola County, Florida, (2) social services provided by community organizations in Osceola County, and (3) the perspectives and experiences of key stakeholders (e.g. school district staff, administrators, teachers, and parents) related to educating displaced Puerto Rican children. The study also explores relocation processes—including social networks and emergency assistance that led to Puerto Ricans relocating to Osceola County—as well as possible future migration patterns and their implications for schooling and services. Findings demonstrate that schools focused on supporting the socioemotional, academic, and basic needs of displaced students and also helped them to navigate linguistic and cultural differences in an education system vastly different from their previous experience. While community organizations mobilized to support displaced families, systemic inequities, such as access to housing and employment, affected the lives of those displaced by the storm and could have long-term implications for the mobility and migration of Puerto Ricans both within the mainland United States, as well as between the mainland and the island.


In the 1990s, Florida had the second largest population of Puerto Ricans in the United States (displacing New Jersey), and by 2008, Orlando had the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans outside New York City (Duany and Silver 20101). Puerto Ricans in Central Florida are a diverse group, coming from other U.S. states, as well as directly from the island. Puerto Rican demographics on the mainland in general, and Central Florida in particular, have experienced a substantial and rapid change because of Hurricane Maria, a near-Category 5 storm that struck Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, wiping out the entire island’s electrical system and leaving physical destruction in its wake. The storm’s impact, as well as the inequitable and inefficient recovery, has displaced thousands of residents. Nearly one year later, this process of forced migration continues.

Before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was experiencing depopulation—in 2016, there were 5.5 million Puerto Ricans on the mainland, as opposed to 3.4 million residents on the island. According to estimates by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, the island is expected to lose up to 14 percent of its population by 2019 because of the hurricane’s devastation. An estimated 22,700 to 42,700 will be school-age children between 5 to 17 years old (Meléndez and Hinojosa 20172). By December 2017, more than 10,300 students from Puerto Rico had enrolled in Florida school districts, representing a five percent increase in the total kindergarten through 12th grade enrollment in the state since 2015. The vast majority of those students arrived in districts in Central Florida (Meléndez, Hinojosa and Roman 20173). These demographic shifts have significantly affected the schools in receiving communities—which have seen an influx in Puerto Rican students needing enrollment assistance, language support, counseling, and other services—as well as schools on the island, many of which have not reopened while others are being threatened with closure.

Study Overview

This study examines the effects that displacement had on the education of Puerto Rican children and youth who arrived in Florida after Hurricane Maria. Considering the important role of family in a child’s education and development, as well as the differential impacts of disaster on children and adults, the study also looks at how parents were supported relocating and adjusting to life in Florida. The research focuses on the policies and programs enacted by the School District of Osceola County in Central Florida (near Orlando) and the responses of the receiving community in providing social services to meet the different needs of children and their caregivers.

The School District of Osceola County was selected for this research because it received 2,700 students who were displaced from Puerto Rico during the 2017-2018 school year. The district enrolls more than 67,000 students across 47 schools in the towns of Celebration, Kissimmee, St. Cloud, Poinciana, Harmony, and Kenansville. More than 63 percent of students identify as Hispanic or Latinx*, with the district serving a significant Latinx population before the hurricane (including Venezuelans, Colombians, and Puerto Ricans). Additionally, Osceola County was a Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded relocation site and a natural destination for Puerto Ricans looking to join family members or reside in an established Puerto Rican diaspora. The unpredictability of FEMA funding and shared housing with extended family, however, led many to be displaced again within months of their arrival.

The study also explores relocation processes—including social networks and emergency assistance that facilitated the arrival of children and families to Osceola County—and participant perceptions of future migration patterns and their implications for education and services provided. While quantitative studies and statistical projections demonstrating the magnitude of migration to the mainland have been conducted, limited qualitative information is available to understand how school districts and social service agencies have responded to an influx of Puerto Rican children and their families and how that displacement has affected their educational experiences. This study aims to fill this gap by qualitatively documenting how Osceola County responded to the influx and, in particular, how they addressed the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students and families that were displaced multiple times during the initial disaster and the ongoing inequities of its aftermath.

The research questions guiding this study are:

1) What policies and programs were enacted by the School District of Osceola County in anticipation of, or in response to, receiving students from Puerto Rico (including but not limited to enrollment assistance, family engagement initiatives, language services, and socioemotional support)?

2) To what extent did receiving communities in Osceola County respond to the disaster by enacting initiatives and programs that provided access to key social services for arriving Puerto Rican children and their families?

3) What are the perspectives and experiences of key stakeholders (e.g., district staff, administrators, teachers, and parents) related to educating Puerto Rican children who were displaced by the hurricane, including ongoing opportunities and challenges?

By documenting policies, programs, and potential gaps in services—as well as by identifying the continuing needs of children and families—this study aims to provide actionable information and policy implications for school districts enrolling Puerto Rican students, as well as other culturally and linguistically diverse groups who have been displaced by disaster.

* While there is still some disagreement on the use and meaning of the term Latinx, the authors choose to use the term due to its origins in activism, which aligns with the purpose of conducting this study, as well as the hybridity and fluidity of identity that it represents.

Theoretical Framework

Children are often exposed to double trauma by experiencing difficult life events and by experiencing accumulated marginalization based on how they are positioned within school systems (Dutro and Bien 20144). Puerto Rican children and youth displaced by Hurricane Maria who moved to the mainland were subject to a traumatic natural disaster in their homeland, as well as the potential to be marginalized due to racial, cultural, and linguistic factors in the schools and communities where they relocated. Furthermore, transnational experiences have historically enabled Puerto Ricans on the island and on the mainland to participate in continuous sociocultural, economic and political exchanges as well as geographic, linguistic, and cultural border crossings. While these transnational exchanges facilitate mobility, movement between the island and mainland—particularly following disaster—is shaped by social location and vulnerability. Thus, while mobility and migration is not a new phenomenon among the Puerto Rican diaspora (Acosta-Belén and Santiago 20065), mobility structures people’s lives in unequal ways (Salazar 20166). This is particularly true as disasters expose fundamental inequities in social systems, and the long-term effects of the recovery process often outrank the disaster itself in terms of impact on people’s lives (Erikson 20177).

Research suggests three dominant themes in Puerto Rican education in U.S. schools, one of which is the conflict between marginalization and belonging (Nieto 20008). Nieto argues that “what Puerto Ricans as a group expect of U.S. schools is not assimilation, but rather accommodation to, and even the protection and maintenance of, their language and culture” (p. 11). Educational practices in U.S. schools that require linguistically and culturally diverse students to assimilate come in direct conflict with these expectations and are therefore important in understanding how Puerto Rican children and their families experience the education system in the United States. The nature of language policies, programs, and support available to children who are becoming bilingual has implications for the continuity of language development in schools over the long-term. Research shows that Puerto Rican’s transnational practices often result in being educated in school systems on the island (in mostly Spanish) and on the mainland (in mostly English) (Zentella 19909). As a result, access to bilingual education in both places has been central to the academic success of Puerto Rican students. Since displacement caused by disaster points to the possibility of families returning to the island, the way in which linguistic and cultural diversity is positioned in the communities where they relocate should be critically examined.

Research on displaced children in the United States after Hurricane Katrina demonstrates the complexity of children’s life trajectories after disaster (Fothergill and Peek 201510). This study showed that, for many children affected by Hurricane Katrina, the natural disaster was not their first traumatic childhood experience. They had also been exposed to poverty, violence, failing schools, housing instability, and other stresses in their daily lives. Children living in poverty were among those most likely to be forced to relocate since their neighborhoods and communities were susceptible to flooding. Additionally, the attitudes of community members where they relocated changed significantly over time—they were initially welcoming but became increasingly intolerant of those who were displaced and needed economic and social support to meet their long-term needs (9). Research on families in the Hurricane Katrina diaspora highlights the role of social networks in evacuation and relocation, the roles of nonprofit and government institutions in receiving communities, and the ways in which community organizing serves as a response to disaster. This research also describes cumulative challenges in relocation, including family separation and long-term displacement, with some families moving more than three times in a search for stability (Weber and Peek 201211). In the context of Puerto Rican displacement after Hurricane Maria, these challenges have the potential to be exacerbated by linguistic and cultural differences, racialization, the island’s colonial relationship with the United States, the effects of disaster capitalism, and other factors.


Primary data was collected from district policy documents and community organization program materials, site visits to schools and nonprofit organizations, and interviews with 27 community organization leaders, parents, school district officials, principals, teachers, and school personnel. The sample included four schools (one elementary school, one middle school, and two high schools) and two nonprofit organizations. Interviews were semi-structured, with some conducted individually while others used a group format. Interview duration varied from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on the availability of participants. This data collection was completed during one week in May 2018. Table 1 outlines the number of interviewees in each category of stakeholders:

Table 1. Number of participants interviewed per stakeholder group

Stakeholder Category Participants (Total)
School District Administration and Directors (3)
Schools Principals and Administrators (4)
Special Education Staff (1)
Teachers (8)
Nonprofit Organizations Executive Directors (2)
Program Staff (3)
Parents/Community Members Parent Coordinator (1)
Parents (5)

All interview and focus group data were transcribed verbatim in the language used by respondents (English and/or Spanish). Both investigators, who are fluent in English and Spanish, transcribed the interviews. Once transcribed, responses from each participant were read thoroughly and organized according to emerging themes related to the research questions. The transcripts were then entered into MaxQDA software and two transcripts were coded independently by the co-researchers. After this initial round, the co-investigators compared themes and used areas of agreement and divergence to determine a coding protocol for the remaining transcripts. After the transcripts were coded independently by each co-investigator using MaxQDA, the final themes for each transcript were compared, discrepancies were discussed, and coding decisions were made collaboratively.

The codes generated from the transcripts were mapped onto each of the questions outlined in Appendix A, with careful attention to differences in the themes expressed by the participants. Data collected from a variety of stakeholders responding to similar research questions enabled data triangulation with multiple perspectives captured on each issue. Potential discrepancies between participant responses were explored more fully in the transcripts, as well as by developing follow-up questions that will be used to explore themes with participants in future iterations of data collection.

Preliminary Findings

This section outlines key themes that emerged from initial data analysis. The preliminary findings are divided into three primary categories: (1) school, (2) community, and (3) mobility and migration. Themes discussed include meeting basic needs, providing socioemotional support, helping students fulfill graduation requirements, addressing language and culture, finding housing and other sources of long-term stability, and understanding future migration plans.

Category I: School

Basic Needs

Students and families arriving from Puerto Rico often came to Florida with little more than what fit in a suitcase. Although many families who came in the first wave of migration (before or shortly after the hurricane hit) had the financial means to leave the island on their own, families in the later, second wave of migration were often only able to migrate with government assistance. Many of these families in the second wave previously lived in poverty on the island, which was compounded by being unable to find employment after they arrived. The school district, therefore, worked to help families secure basic needs. While each school site organized its own efforts, the Special Programs Department was instrumental in organizing and distributing donations, as well as conducting outreach. Most students displaced from Hurricane Maria qualified for services under the Families in Transition (FIT) program (2,473 students by May 2018) through the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which, according to the school district’s website, serves students “who lack a fixed, regular, and nighttime residence, including shared housing, living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, transitional shelters, or camping grounds.” These students received uniforms, transportation, free breakfast and lunch, and other services. Outreach to families began immediately upon arrival in Florida, with the school district setting up an information station at the Orlando International Airport as part of the Multi-Agency Resource Center established by the Florida Division of Emergency Management to support incoming families. The district made several accommodations to ensure that students could enroll in school as soon as possible, including registering students in schools and programs without documentation of school history or services previously received; providing extended time frames to submit required paperwork; waiving requirements for physicals and vaccine records and later facilitating their completion; and supporting temporary guardianship efforts for students who arrived without parents. As school administrators, staff, and teachers recognized additional needs, they mobilized—with the support of community organizations and private donors—to provide food, supermarket gift cards, clothing, hygiene products, prom dresses, caps and gowns for graduation, free tickets to events, and more.

Socioemotional Support

Having lived through the traumatic experience of being displaced from home by a natural disaster, Puerto Rican students also faced socioemotional challenges during their transition to the U.S. public school system. Some students arrived without parents, as their families had to stay on the island to rebuild their lives but wanted to minimize the time their children spent out of school. This situation was particularly difficult for children moving in with relatives or family friends they had not met before. The district superintendent noted that mental health referrals doubled from the amount of the previous academic year, and largely attributed that increase to the district’s efforts working with displaced families and ensuring they received counseling. The district works with fourteen mental health providers to offer services to students, made available primarily through Medicaid or offered pro bono. Local nonprofit organizations and school social workers also collaborated to provide referrals for support. Challenges frequently arose, however, including institutions working on different timelines, lack of collaboration due to confidentiality stipulations and vetting requirements, varied institutional ability to respond quickly to emerging situations, and other issues. In addition to supporting the needs of students and families, administrators were also providing support for school staff who simultaneously faced concerns about their own families in Puerto Rico affected by the hurricane and increased workloads and demands.

Schools responded to support students’ socioemotional needs by establishing peer mentoring programs, reiterating the message that new students were welcome, and hiring displaced Puerto Rican teachers that could provide both emotional support and a connection to their home culture and language. Additional social workers were hired and the district ensured that each school had a guidance counselor. Social workers also visited the hotels where displaced families were housed. School administrators and teachers reported the ongoing trauma experienced by many students after the hurricane was mainly the result of difficult life situations during the transition to living in Florida, such as housing and income instability or the death of a close family member. In some cases, teachers felt that these experiences increased student resistance to or the inability to feel attached to new schools and living environments. School administrators, teachers, and parents expressed that students faced significant challenges attempting to balance the academic expectations of U.S. public schools with the stressful living conditions they experienced as a result of displacement.

Because most displaced students were dealing with conditions of instability outside of school, providing a level of stability within the school system was critical. Schools therefore worked to ensure supportive and consistent learning environments for students. For example, effort was made to place students with teachers and in classrooms where they would have greater support. Some displaced students found it upsetting to change classrooms or programs, which often happened when language testing changed their class or teacher assignment. In special cases, some students were kept in English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms to provide support and stability, even if their English language skills were stronger. Moreover, teachers reported experiencing tensions between needing to prepare students to meet rigorous state standards (including through standardized tests) and their desire to demonstrate sensitivity and understanding for the difficult conditions in which many of the displaced students were living. In all cases, teachers reported providing emotional support to newly arrived students in their classrooms and saw that as a priority.

Graduation Requirements

The district provided targeted support to the more than 120 high school seniors who came from Puerto Rico to ensure that they would be able to graduate on time. Because of the pressure to be accountable and the arrival of many high school juniors and seniors, helping new secondary students graduate on time was a matter of urgency for district administrators, high school principals, and the guidance counseling teams at each high school. Informational meetings were held at every high school to discuss available options with students and their families. Students were given the option of obtaining a high school diploma from Puerto Rico or from the state of Florida. The vast majority of students chose to pursue the Florida diploma, as they believed it would provide more employment and academic opportunities.

Pursuing the Florida diploma, though, required students to pass the state graduation exit exam in English. Students from Puerto Rico had limited experience with standardized tests, and those they had been exposed to didn’t have consequences for grade promotion or accessing specific opportunities. Thus the requirement to pass a comprehensive exam in English in order to graduate represented a significant stressor for many students. Students who chose to earn a diploma from Puerto Rico had additional requirements to complete, including community service and a career component. The district accommodated student schedules and strategically planned courses to help them fulfill these requirements, although eventually the community service requirement was waived. Individual support meetings for every high school senior arriving from Puerto Rico was a priority for guidance counselors. The increased workload demanded additional guidance counselors in order to meet with all students who had advising needs. Senior transcripts were continuously reviewed and used to guarantee all graduation requirements were met. School staff also met with juniors to ensure that they would be on track to graduate the following year. The district consistently worked to prevent any student from being excluded from graduating with the diploma of their choice and by the end of the year the vast majority were expected to do so.


After Hurricane Maria, the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) in the district rose from 15 to 17 percent. While some schools had significant ELL populations before the storm, others had limited experience working with ELLs and were less prepared with the necessary staff and curriculum to support the linguistic needs of newcomers. According to teachers, arriving students varied in language needs and preparation. While some were bilingual, particularly in the first wave of migration, others spoke Spanish only and had a wide range of literacy levels in that language.

Regardless of schools’ previous experience serving ELLs, the influx of students needing language support and services placed additional demands on schools and teachers. For example, class sizes for teachers serving ELLs increased significantly, there were insufficient paraprofessionals to keep student-teacher ratios low, and staff tasked with testing and placing Spanish-speaking students had a substantial workload. Additionally, many of the students qualified for special education services through the district’s Exceptional Student Education (ESE) department, which requires bilingual psychologists, counselors, and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) that outline appropriate accommodations. Since displaced Puerto Rican students were distributed across the district, the Multicultural Education Department strove to embed systems that supported all schools, as well as provided additional professional development to teachers. Administrators noted that the large increase in Spanish-speaking students across the district allowed them to address previously unidentified gaps in providing effective language support to ELL students.

Language program models differ across the district (e.g. one-way and two-way dual language, sheltered instruction, push-in/pull-out support inside or outside of the mainstream classroom, and self-contained), and schools have the autonomy to determine the offerings that best serve their students. The district as a whole, as well as individual schools, responded to student needs by increasing the availability of sheltered instruction programs (which use specific teaching methods to make grade-level content accessible to students learning English), allocating additional teachers to create new classes and decrease class size, hiring more paraprofessionals to support push-in and pull-out models, and increasing the number of ELL specialists for both compliance and coaching responsibilities. A position to support sheltered instruction was also created at the district level in response to the influx of students. One middle school in particular addressed the needs of ELLs by creating an elective in Spanish for heritage speakers and plans to introduce a dual language program the following academic year.

Furthermore, despite the widespread need for language and special education services, standardized testing in English and accountability performance measures placed significant pressure on students, teachers, and schools. Although the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (which replaced the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015) allows for students to be tested in their home language rather than English, district advocacy to make this accommodation available for students was not supported at the state level. The state’s insistence on testing in English only reflects a monolingual language perspective that does not allow speakers of languages other than English to demonstrate their content knowledge. As a result, all Puerto Rican students at the secondary level (regardless of English proficiency) had to take standardized tests in English in order to graduate. Interviews confirmed that these tests most frequently measured language proficiency and not what students knew or were able to do in particular subject areas.

The district had previously increased its grade on the state’s accountability report (from a C to a B) and district administrators were concerned that this progress would be negatively affected by the changing student demographics after the hurricane without appropriate testing support (new arrivals were mostly Spanish speakers). However, the district also repeatedly stressed their commitment to serve all students and noted that the influx of students from Puerto Rico would improve their school community and the services they offered by making them more responsive to student needs. The Multicultural Education Department was instrumental in the process of strengthening services, and became a primary point of contact and outreach for schools as well as displaced students and families.


Students arriving to Florida from Puerto Rico encountered a school system vastly different from the one they left behind. Participants consistently mentioned the difficulties new students had in adjusting to the norms of mainland schools, including large campuses and buildings, passing periods, strict security measures and rules for leaving campus, class schedules, and cafeteria offerings. Therefore, school staff focused on helping students feel welcome and part of the school community. For example, peer mentoring programs were established to help newly arrived Puerto Rican students navigate school culture. In many cases, the mentors were other students displaced from Puerto Rico who had arrived in Osceola County earlier and could serve as empathetic cultural brokers. Schools held community meetings to welcome new students and their families, gave introductory tours to familiarize students with campus facilities and their schedules, held regular meetings with students to address concerns and questions, and hosted school and social events that reflected students’ cultural practices (e.g., Christmas parties with bilingual programs or parrandas, Puerto Rican meals, music, and Día de Reyes celebrations).

One of the school district’s significant strengths was that it already employed a high number of Puerto Rican teachers and staff (including administrators, psychologists, and guidance counselors) before the hurricane. Participants frequently emphasized the vital role Puerto Rican teachers and staff had in supporting displaced students and families. Drawing from their own cultural backgrounds, language abilities, family migration stories, and personal connections to the island (including many who had family affected by the hurricane), Puerto Rican school personnel were better able to help students and families adjust to and make sense of the expectations and cultural norms of mainland public schools. Additionally, school administrators reported hiring several displaced Puerto Rican teachers, increasing the number of school staff that connected culturally with students and their experiences. Bilingualism, however, was a key requirement in hiring and many displaced teachers who applied were not hired because they did not speak English. Despite the wealth of activities aimed at supporting students—particularly at the beginning of the influx of relocation—most participants indicated that the district and individual schools needed to strengthen efforts to familiarize displaced students and families with the differences in norms and expectations they encountered in mainland public schools.

General Challenges

Many of those relocating from Puerto Rico to Central Florida were concentrated in Osceola and Orange Counties. The districts in these counties bore the primary responsibility for supporting newly arrived students and families and found that, over time, it became more difficult to gain political support for their efforts, since actors outside the geographical limits did not fully understand the impacts of the hurricane on local schools and communities. In the case of the School District of Osceola County, displaced families were distributed widely across the district rather than being centered in a handful of schools. Therefore programmatic efforts and funds to support students and families could not be targeted to a few schools, but instead had to be spread out across the nearly 50 schools in the district. In other words, the scale of the impact presented a significant challenge in effectively responding to emerging needs. Additionally, the rapidly changing situation made it more difficult for the district to respond immediately and provide school administrators and teachers with the most up-to-date information on program and policy changes.

There was a general sense that the effects of the hurricane and the displacement it caused would not be temporary and would have a lasting impact on district demographics and the surrounding community. In addition to perceptions that most of the more than 2,000 displaced students would stay in the district for the 2018-2019 school year, administrators and teachers anticipated another large influx of Puerto Ricans. This perception was based on conditions in the island deteriorating and schools remaining closed after Hurricane Maria coupled with fears about the potential impacts of the upcoming 2018 hurricane season. Critiques of Puerto Rico’s public school system surfaced throughout data collection. School administrators and teachers mentioned having difficulties supporting students that relocated during the second migration wave—who tended to be from families living in poverty and who they sometimes perceived as presenting behavioral challenges and showing large academic gaps. In contrast, students from more economically stable families—many of whom attended private schools in Puerto Rico and came with the first migration wave—were often praised for their intelligence and for being good students. This finding reflects inequities in educational quality on the island that are replicated and compounded through displacement and transition to school systems with significantly different curriculum, standards, assessments, rules, and discipline procedures. Similarly, turnover among Puerto Rican teachers from the island hired after the storm was in some cases attributed to the difficulties of adjusting to the demands, expectations, and constant monitoring and accountability requirements of the U.S. public school system.

Category II: Community

Basic Needs

In addition to schools, local community and nonprofit organizations played a key role in supporting displaced families arriving to Osceola County after Hurricane Maria. Although Florida government officials made statements welcoming displaced families, funds allocated were insufficient to truly cover the needs of the Puerto Ricans who arrived in Central Florida. Therefore nonprofit organizations such as Community Hope Center and the Council on Aging mobilized community support and secured private funding sources to help meet the basic needs. While residents of Osceola County are not wealthy and local agencies have limited resources, study participants agreed the community supported displaced families to the best of its ability. At times, organizations were overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity in donations and volunteer support.

Staff at the Community Hope Center took on the caseloads of families experiencing homelessness, prioritizing families living in hotels and those that had nowhere else to go. Community organizations were instrumental in identifying the ongoing needs of families and establishing referrals to service providers. They also met with those displaced to discuss available assistance programs and support from FEMA and other institutions. The Council on Aging worked with a high number of displaced individuals with special medical needs. Their free clinic served individuals who did not have access to insurance. They also provided hospital beds, walkers, and wheelchairs, while church partners donated uniforms, free haircuts, and backpacks with supplies. Organizations such as Love Pantry, Domino USA, Acacia Community Center, Latinx Leadership, Mi Familia Vota, The Lions Club, CASA, and local libraries collected and distributed donations and referred families to other community services. Other efforts by community organizations included advocating for FEMA voucher extensions; organizing school supply, clothing, and food drives; providing lists of available community resources; and delivering hot meals. Additionally, community leaders have provided psychological, financial, and programmatic support to families and individuals experiencing tremendous ongoing trauma. Leaders of nonprofit organizations recognized that these experiences often resulted in firsthand and secondary trauma for program staff, which needed to be addressed through support systems and training. Despite organizing to support the immediate needs of families, one of the greatest challenges faced by community organizations has been putting the necessary programs and services in place to support the long-term needs of families who plan to stay in Osceola County.


Affordable housing was consistently identified by district personnel, school administrators, teachers, and families as one of the primary challenges facing displaced Puerto Ricans in Osceola County. High rents and multiple restrictions (e.g., limitations on the number of individuals living in a unit, credit requirements, substantial deposits) prevented families from securing housing and contributed to longer-term instability. While some apartment complexes waived certain fees for displaced Puerto Ricans, rent was still often financially impossible to meet for separated families or those who had difficulty finding employment. One participant expressed that some Puerto Ricans arrived in Florida expecting similar living conditions to Puerto Rico because of the large Latinx population, and were surprised to encounter substantial hardships in locating housing. FEMA’s Transitional Housing Assistance (TSA) program provided housing vouchers in hotels and motels to many families in the second wave of migration, yet these families were threatened with eviction multiple times as the expiration deadlines for benefits were frequently changed on short notice. Families who received FEMA hotel vouchers lived in difficult conditions with limited physical space, no access to kitchens, and emotionally volatile situations caused by the many displaced families, who were often dealing with severe trauma and high levels of stress, being housed in the same hotels. One particular case that shook the community and was mentioned several times during data collection (it had occurred the week before) involved a Puerto Rican woman displaced by the hurricane who was shot to death in front of her mother and two children, both enrolled in public schools in Osceola County. This case is only one example of the ongoing trauma experienced by displaced families subjected to unstable and inadequate housing conditions.

In addition, efforts to build affordable housing were abandoned after local residents protested the initiatives, claiming affordable housing units would decrease their property values. Other existing supports, such as Section 8 housing, have three- to five-year waitlists, limiting their usefulness for immediate housing needs. Although programs like Homeward Bound provide support for families facing homelessness by helping them relocate to other states, these programs have strict protocols for who can receive aid. Families applying to the program must be able to establish contact with someone willing to take responsibility for the family in the new location.

Families staying with relatives and friends in Osceola County experienced difficulties, too. For example, study participants reported cases where up to fourteen individuals were living in one house. Some people could only shelter family members for a limited time because of restrictions established by landlords, while others found it emotionally and financially overwhelming to support displaced families for an extended time. As a result, tension arose between displaced families and their relatives and friends, with those displaced being asked to vacate.

Community organizations such as the Community Hope Center, Vamos4PR, and local churches were instrumental in providing support to families experiencing homelessness and those who were living in hotels and motels as part of the TSA program. Services offered included rapid rehousing programs, coordinating rental assistance and other benefits, advocating for FEMA voucher extensions, connecting families to services, and providing general support for the subsistence and socioemotional needs of families. Despite the work of these community organizations, the demand for housing among displaced families far outweighed the supply and it was impossible to assist all families in need.

Category III: Mobility and Migration

Just as students and families from Puerto Rico arrived in Florida continuously throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, the migration flow between the island and the mainland United States has not stopped. This movement is facilitated by U.S. citizenship, an advantage that other displaced populations served by the district (i.e., Venezuelans fleeing political and economic crises) do not have. Some teachers anticipate a “tidal wave” of new students in the 2018-2019 school year, predicting many families will relocate to the district, which is geographically within a centralized hub with hotels and previously established Puerto Rican communities.

As families settle into new lives in the mainland United States, they are also moving to different schools in the district, to other cities in Florida, and to other states in the country. Some have already or will soon move back to Puerto Rico. In general, family decisions regarding whether or not to move are based on several factors. Finding reliable and accessible housing and employment, for example, play a major role in decision-making, as does the social location of a family. While the social situation of some families improved significantly after moving to the United States, others found that their once-comfortable and relatively privileged life in Puerto Rico could not be replicated in Central Florida. Difficulty adapting to life in Florida was a reality for many displaced Puerto Rican families. However, the economic crisis and slow recovery on the island prevent many from returning even when that is their preference. Additionally, families continue to face multiple displacements. After being initially uprooted from the island by the disaster, traumatic events such as evictions, conflicts with family in shared housing, and difficulty finding employment have caused families to continually seek stability in new places.

Study participants shared mixed views on whether the majority of families would stay in the mainland United States or return to Puerto Rico. Reasons for staying include perceptions of a higher quality of life and increased educational opportunities in Florida (e.g., dual language programs, advanced placement courses, and industry certifications). Many teachers believed that students were interested in staying on the mainland because of the educational advantages, such as schools helping them connect with college opportunities, enroll in vocational programs, join the military, and find jobs. Although academics prevailed as explanatory factors for students staying in Florida, some teachers acknowledged that students were there out of necessity and not because it was their preference. Families are aware that ongoing issues in Puerto Rico have not been addressed and, as a result, the upcoming hurricane season and fragile infrastructure weighs in for those contemplating returning to the island. In many cases, families do not have housing, employment, or stable social services to which they can return. Additionally, Puerto Rico is both physically and emotionally home to displaced families who long to go back eventually. Some study participants believed that the end of the school year would prompt many families to return, particularly as the FEMA housing voucher program was set to expire in June 2018. Families who were able to find housing and employment back on the island often chose to return based on these opportunities. On the other hand, some families had no choice but to return to Puerto Rico in the middle of the school year because they lacked the financial resources to stay in Florida.

Implications and Future Research

Hurricane Maria has had a significant effect on Puerto Rican migration patterns, with Florida receiving the most individuals and families displaced by the storm. Additionally, migration is predicted to continue through the 2018 hurricane season and as widespread school closures on the island continue. Over the long term, this migration wave will have important implications for receiving communities, and particularly for public schools. Given the high number of displaced students who have already entered U.S. public schools, it is crucial to gain an understanding of the effects displacement had on the children and youth whose academic school years were interrupted and transformed by Hurricane Maria.

This pilot study increases the understanding of the differential effects of disaster relocation processes and how they intersect with student educational experiences. Theoretically, this research contributes to literature on education and disaster by emphasizing linguistic and cultural diversity as important considerations for post-disaster educational programming and social services. Moreover, these considerations are situated within the context of the ¬circular and internal migration patterns that are facilitated by Puerto Rican citizenship status, as well as resulting from the ongoing inequities of multiple displacements throughout the recovery process. This research also informs education policy and practice by identifying opportunities and challenges in addressing the needs of displaced populations. The results are relevant both for districts across Florida and in other states that have received high numbers of Puerto Rican children after Hurricane Maria, such as New York and Illinois. The research is also relevant for other communities whose enrollment and school populations are transformed by disaster-induced displacement, both national and international.

Future research should focus on documenting the policies and programs enacted by other receiving districts and communities in the state of Florida and beyond, providing an opportunity to compare and contrast experiences based on local context. Because local responses to increases in culturally and linguistically diverse student populations vary significantly and are context-bound, this comparison would provide critical insight for education stakeholders in strengthening efforts to address the needs of newly arrived students. Additional research is also needed to highlight how the youth themselves perceive their experiences of displacement and how those experiences have influenced their educational trajectories. Other potential areas of inquiry include analyzing how school closures and disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico facilitate ongoing out-migration, exploring differences in the educational experiences of students displaced to the United States from Caribbean islands by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and identifying the long-term effects of access to different types of language programs for students who return to and continue their education in Puerto Rico.

Appendix A

Guiding Question Probing Question
1. How has the Puerto Rican student population changed in your school since Hurricane Maria?
  • How large was the Puerto Rican student population in your school before the hurricane? After? Do you anticipate a continued increase in enrollment of students arriving from the island? Why or why not?
  • Please describe the role that social networks or other institutions may have had on the decision of Puerto Rican families to move to your particular district and/or attend your particular school. Are there certain communities, employment opportunities, social assistance, or other factors that may have made moving to this community more feasible than to others?
  • Did your school do any specific outreach (at the airport, to community organizations, etc.) to welcome new students after the hurricane?
2. What policies or programs does your school have that are targeted at supporting students and families arriving from Puerto Rico?
  • What policies or programs were previously in place (before the hurricane) to support students and families new to your school?
  • What policies or programs were created after the hurricane, if any, specifically in response to an influx of students and families arriving from Puerto Rico because of a natural disaster? At what points during the school year were these put in place? What factors promoted these decisions?
  • Are there new policies or programs that are currently being created or in the planning stages to support this student population and their families? Please describe.
  • With additional resources available, what policies or programs would you choose to create at your school based on the greatest needs of arriving Puerto Rican students and families?
3. What types of enrollment assistance has your school provided to new students and families arriving from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria?
  • How does your school identify new students in the area to ensure they are enrolled?
  • Who supports parents and families in the enrollment process? How?
  • Has the school made any exceptions to the paperwork or information needed for enrollment based on the nature of the situation? Please describe.
  • Are there any other potential barriers to enrollment that your school has identified? If so, please describe.
4. What types of family engagement initiatives does your school make available to newly arriving Puerto Rican parents, or guardians of newly arrived Puerto Rican students?
  • What kinds of family engagement activities have been held this year? Have any been planned specifically for this population? If so, please describe.
  • What kinds of communication with families are primarily used by your school? Have any new communications been tailored specifically for this population? If so, please describe.
  • What supports or social services are available to families in your community, particularly those from this population? To your knowledge, to what extent have newly arrived Puerto Rican families used these services?
  • Do you or your school work with other social service agencies to connect families with services? If so, which ones?
  • What do you perceive as the greatest needs or greatest challenges facing newly arrived Puerto Rican families and their children? How has your school, the district and/or greater community responded?
5. What language services, programs and support are available at your school to newly arrived Puerto Rican children and their families?
  • Roughly what percentage of newly arrived Puerto Rican students at your school are identified as needing support in English? How does the identification process work?
  • What language programs exist at your school for students who arrive speaking primarily Spanish?
  • Does your school have enough qualified teachers and/or support personnel to provide language programs or services to all of the newly arrived students that need them? How has your school responded to increased demand?
  • What language support is available for parents who speak primarily Spanish?
6. Understanding that Hurricane Maria and the subsequent move to the mainland United States has likely been difficult for many students and their families, what socioemotional support has been made available?
  • Have teachers and administrators at your school received training to provide socioemotional support in general, and specifically for this student population? Please describe.
  • Have new support staff (e.g. counselors) been hired or placed at your school this year as a result? Please explain.
  • Have you or other teachers/school staff identified any gaps in socioemotional support for students arriving from Puerto Rico? Please explain.
  • What resources exist at your school for students who are identified by teachers/school administrators/parents and/or who self-identify as needing counseling, therapy, or other support based on their experiences?
7. What plans, if any, has the school put in place to ensure continuity in the educational experience of Puerto Rican students if they continue to move within the United States or return to Puerto Rico as they seek stability?
  • Have you noticed significant movement already of Puerto Rican students in and out of your school as families seek stable housing and living conditions? Has the school responded in any way?
  • What do you anticipate as the greatest needs of students who continue to move within the United States or return to Puerto Rico throughout their educational career? What programs, policies or supports could be put in place to support them in these areas?


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  3. Meléndez, Edwin, Jennifer Hinojosa, and Nashia Roman. Post-Hurricane Maria Exodus from Puerto Rico and School Enrollment in Florida. Research Brief, New York: CentroPR: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2017. 

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Suggested Citation:

Hamm-Rodríguez, M. & Sambolín Morales, A. (2018). The Effects of Displacement on Puerto Rican K-12 Students in Florida after Hurricane Maria (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 285). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Hamm-Rodríguez, M. & Sambolín Morales, A. (2018). The Effects of Displacement on Puerto Rican K-12 Students in Florida after Hurricane Maria (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 285). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.