Language barrier a challenge for Hurricane Maria kids in Cumberland schools

FAYETTEVILLE, NC (WTVD) -- Cumberland County students who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria left the island in ruins are facing another challenge.

Many of them have said it's been a culture shock and difficult to find work. Another major hurdle is the children could repeat the same grade next school year.

Homework hour in the Saul-Colon household is every evening after school. Michele Saul-Colon typically translates her nieces' and nephews' homework that they bring home.

"They're learning at a slow pace, but mainly because they socialize," Saul-Colon said.

Her home in Fayetteville has become a haven for her two nieces from Puerto Rico and their families. The language barrier has made being here a major challenge.

She showed ABC11 progress reports for the children that showed the disparities.

"Parents are being talked into signing for the kids to repeat the grades because they don't have proficiency in English," said Saul-Colon.

She said the children have been labeled as academically behind in Fayetteville, but in Puerto Rico, they weren't. She's received paperwork stating the children will be held back another year. There are more students facing the same problem.

"They're not being held back but they're not, necessarily, have a certain number of credits to go to the next grade. They haven't gotten enough to go next year, for example from 10th to 11th. But they may have enough to stay in 10th grade for a semester but be promoted to the 11th grade," said Deborah Wilkes, who is the English as a Second Language program coordinator for Cumberland County schools.

Wilkes said more than 200 children from Puerto Rico started school in the district after Hurricane Maria hit. She said her staff is doing the best it can.

"We have 26 ESL teachers, and we go to 85 schools. You can imagine we're stretching as thin as we can get," Wilkes said.

The ESL program equips families with not just school-related resources, but other services that could help the family. Saul-Colon wishes they could do more.

"They need to ask the Hispanic community what is needed. Not just one person," Saul Colon said.
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