Teens Who Fled Hurricane Maria Are Among New England’s High School Class of 2018

Jun 4, 2018

After Hurricane Maria last September, a few thousand school aged-students were among those who left Puerto Rico with their families and came to New England. As the school year wraps up some of them are graduating, thousands of miles away from home.

Mayrangelique Rojas De Leon is among them. She recently completed her last exam and is now part of the Class of 2018.

While at most high schools this time of the year seniors are barely around, on a day in late May, De Leon was checking in with her art teacher about a sculpture that needed to be fired in the kiln.

Her dream for the future, she said, is to be a writer.

“I think I have a really big imagination,” De Leon said.

De Leon also has what some educators call grit. Like thousands of other students, she was displaced in the fall of 2017. In early October, De Leon arrived in Holyoke, Massachusetts, by herself. She lived with an uncle before her mother and sister arrived a month later.

She clearly remembers the early days. Her first day at school, she said, was tough.

“I didn't know it was going to be my first day, and the counselor said, 'Oh you want to start today at this half of the day, or tomorrow, the whole day?' And I was like ‘tomorrow!’ ” she said.

De Leon’s uncle thought otherwise. She started that very day, and remembered thinking at the time, she didn’t even have a pencil.

When she graduates, De Leon's diploma could be from Holyoke High School, or it could from the Puerto Rico Department of Education. It depends on what graduation requirements are met. For instance, Puerto Rico requires a certain number of credits in English and Spanish. Massachusetts requires all students to pass a standardized test.

Holyoke High School Principal Dana Brown said requirements aside, administrators have a lot of leeway with graduation requirements.

“There are some places where high school principals can grant appeals or waivers around courses taken, or not taken,” Brown said, then quickly added: “It’s not the wild, wild west.” 

Dana Brown, principal at Holyoke High School, says adding a hurricane to the mix of normal teen development is "a recipe for disaster."
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR
The bell rings and students hustle to get to class at Holyoke High School.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

Even with a principal’s help, some seniors who came from Puerto Rico this school year will not graduate.

Just weeks ago, De Leon herself almost dropped out. In class one day, she said she couldn't stop crying. A teacher took her to the main office, and there was her guidance counselor and the principal.

“We get to the point [in the conversation] and I told him, ‘I hate school.’ To the principal!’ ” De Leon said.

Brown was really encouraging, she said. He reminded her about her top grades, the importance of college, even if not right now. She said he pushed to find out more about why she suddenly wanted to stop going to school.

De Leon’s list is long. In the months since she left Puerto Rico, she’s lost touch with her friends there. Her father is still on the island. Her boyfriend, whom she met in Holyoke, moved back. And she and her mother are not getting along, to the point where they may not be able to live together.

Brown said that earlier in the spring, the school began checking in with De Leon frequently.

“Where are you? Why aren't you here? You're almost near the finish line, you gotta keep coming back, coming back, coming back!” Brown said, describing rapid fire how he and others pushed De Leon in order to keep her going.

Mayrangelique Rojas De Leon, who left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, graduated on June 3, 2018. She wants to be a writer, but said in her senior year, art class was her favorite place for creativity. English was never an issue.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

De Leon is obviously juggling the move from Puerto Rico. But that aside, Brown said, she’s also a teenager.

“Like any other adolescent in a high school senior year, juggling family issues, society issues, she's trying to figure out who she is,” Brown said.

When you combine all that and throw a hurricane in the mix, he called it “a recipe for disaster.”

Holyoke may be better prepared for the ambiguity brought by Hurricane Maria. Entire families come and go all the time. Not just back to Puerto Rico.

“You never know what families are going to stay or whether they're going to move from Holyoke to Springfield, Springfield to Chicopee, or go back to Puerto Rico,” Brown said.

Other districts have a similar “churn” rate as school officials call it, and the number of students arriving come September isn’t fully known until sometimes the first day of school.

Massachusetts and Connecticut cities were popular locations for families fleeing the island after Hurricane Maria, with long-established Puerto Rican communities, and some families have returned to their homes on the island.

In its most recent student count, the Massachusetts Department of Education has on record 119 high school seniors, and Connecticut has 100.

For any senior, high school graduation is a big accomplishment, but not everyone likes ceremonies. De Leon said she did not plan to go to hers on June 4. But she is thinking about what is next.

Five colleges in New England accepted her for the fall. She doesn’t know how to pay for it, or where she will live, but she wants to study media production. De Leon said she wants to do something that will change the world.

Correction: When this story aired during Morning Edition on June 1, 2018, we made a mistake with part of an interview subject's name. Her full name is Mayrangelique Rojas De Leon.