As the new school year is underway in Columbia City, teachers and students adjust to the changing demographics in the community.
Last year, after Hurricane Maria, devastated the island of Puerto Rico, Warsaw-based medical device manufacturer Zimmer Biomet closed their plant there. The company offered their Puerto Rican employees job transfers to other plants.
Many of them ended up in at Zimmer headquarters in Warsaw, and settled in nearby Columbia City, in Whitley County.
The first signs of the new residents appeared in the school system. Coesse Elementary School Principal, Michelle Urban explained.
“Right after Christmas, that first week, we had a family register here at Coesse and he was telling me about Zimmer was transferring many workers. And I didn't think too much about it,” said Urban. “I said welcome and got the kids acclimated and then another family came…”
Urban said about 20 students registered in the entire school system last school year.
“So little by little I’m trying to figure out how many and kids and to see what type of transition they need also since they are obviously not familiar with the area by any means or the weather,” said Urban.
When the families were arriving, no one had much information. Urban said she had to make some calls, and try to figure out how many families were going to arrive and what their needs would be.
“We did a big resource fair for them to try and to connect them with doctors, insurance, vehicles, needs, any needs they might need even jobs for their spouses and older kids too,” she said.
The school's biggest concerns were class sizes. Urban said she was waiting to see if she would need to hire additional teachers, but in the end it wasn’t necessary.
The first thing Urban did was hire an ELL teacher, or a teacher for English Language Learners. She also hired a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional, who is also from Puerto Rico.
Even though English is spoken on the island, Urban says the news students arrived with a mixture of English comprehension.
“They're from different places in Puerto Rico and different schools. So I think depending of the school and where they were from. We're getting that variety of language differences,” said Urban. “I was thinking some of the older students would be more fluent but not necessarily. I think it just depended on where their schools where from.”
Coesse teachers are adapting to teaching more ELL students and Urban says they are trying their best to help both the students and the teachers adapt.
The school has worked out a system where the ELL teacher support regular
homeroom teachers by adding special instruction techniques.
James Lanham is a fifth grade teacher at Coesse. He said his teaching has changed after having new students from Puerto Rico in his class.
“I feel like I have changed a lot, the way I think about teaching things, just different ways to reach not just them but other students as well that it might be effective for,” said Lanham.
Lanham says at first communication and getting students to interact with each other was a struggle but now everyone is eager to talk to the new students and be their friend.
“Everyone is really excited, they want to know more Spanish and they want to learn more about Puerto Rico and it’s just kind of been an eye opening experience for everybody to be so excited,” said Lanham.
From the children’s perspective, they say it was hard to leave their home in Puerto Rico but they understood why they left.
Alondra and Gabriella are in fifth grade and, like Lanham said, they recall how communicating was a struggle.
“So first, it’s not too difficult to get friends so me and Gaby we speak a little bit of English," Alondra said.
Gabriella said it can be hard.
“To me what’s hard about making friends is like the language. But a little but words or things I don’t know what it is in English and the same thing for the other person and it’s different,” she said.
The girls say things are getting easier and they are looking past some of the differences.
"So here it’s so different. From Puerto Rico it’s so different, it’s a different culture. So it’s good, it’s nice," Alondra said.
"To me, we like have more opportunities. To live, the food, more different I think is the food, we don’t have the same things,” Gabriella said.
Urban says the reactions from the students and teachers has been positive, many want to help and learn more about the new students.
“This is a great wonderful chance for us to be able to welcome and include these families into our Columbia City community,” said Urban. “I have seen a lot of excitement and acceptance and they are just thrilled for them to be there.”
After receiving news that Zimmer’s Puerto Rican plant would not reopen, the school was anticipating more students enrolling this school year. This was in addition to a second wave of Puerto Ricans made the move to Columbia City over the summer.
The number of students from Puerto Rico has doubled since the first wave enrolled in December, with a total of 40 students.
A dozen attend Coesse Elementary.