Bedford Schools Welcoming Young Arrivals from Emergency Shelter

September 13, 2023
Superintendent Cliff Chuang reported to the School Committee on the town’s actions and plans to support the arrival of new students in Bedford Public Schools. Courtesy photo

On Wednesday afternoon, about half a dozen teenagers bounded off a school bus and through the lobby of the Bedford Plaza Hotel, chatting and laughing like any backpack-bearing high school kid.

The hotel on the intersection The Great Road at Shawsheen Avenue is serving as an emergency shelter for migrant families with children as well as pregnant women, mostly from Haiti, but also from some Spanish-speaking countries.

On Tuesday evening, School Superintendent Cliff Chuang told the Bedford School Committee that as of the end of last week, there were 26 enrolled students who reside in the emergency shelter: 10 in kindergarten, five in first grade, two each in grades 5 and 11, and one each in grades 2, 3, 6, 7, 9, 10, and 12. The assignments were based on age, Chuang said, and “there may be a student placed back” for educational reasons. 

“This information is changing, if not daily, then by the hour,” the superintendent points out. “I want to make sure the information is current at the time of reporting.”

Indeed, on Monday, Director of Health and Human Services Heidi Porter said that the placement by state agencies of 21 families resulted in a total school-aged population shifting from last week’s 26 to 45 now. During the day on Wednesday, as part of a social services process in a hotel function room, eight more children registered by early afternoon.

Seventeen children were present for the first week of school and another nine began classes on Tuesday. Additional students will continue to be registered on Wednesdays. “We plan to do that weekly and bring students in the following week,” Chuang told the committee.

“We are hopeful the population will stabilize,” he added, as the Bedford Plaza meets capacity. “We are now in a mode of triaging.” 

He acknowledged that there is another motel in town, “but we don’t believe it is appropriate and the state, so far, has been responsive.” The Bedford Plaza has common space and “sufficient safety,” he said, noting, “I don’t know how those decisions get made in terms of identifying places.”

Answering a question from member Sarah McGinley, Assistant Superintendent Tricia Clifford said educators are considering establishing a “newcomers’ class” for the refugee students in kindergarten and grades 1 and 2, involving an English language teacher and a classroom teacher.

That class “would really help students acclimate to the school” in a way that is “developmentally appropriate,” Clifford said. “We are trying to be cognizant of how to make their transition as smooth as possible.”

He said it would be “a chance to become familiar with their surroundings at Davis. It’s really important to remember we want to give students the best support we can to help them feel safe.”

The environment would be “fluid and flexible,” she said, with other teachers who could help provide support when needed.

Chuang noted, “By the end of last week some of the students were already fully integrated into their home rooms. But different kids have different needs.” 

He commended Davis School Principal Beth Benoit and Carrie Powers, program director for English language learning, for their “extraordinary effort.”

State health officials were in Bedford on Monday “to begin the vaccination screening process,” Chuang reported, working with Bedford Pediatrics, which will be handling physicals and inoculations over the next few weeks.

The superintendent said there are some “strong candidates” for English language teachers and social worker support.

“I’m optimistic about getting the staffing we need.” He noted that state reimbursement of $104 per student per day will be paid quarterly.

“Because we are bringing in two additional educators, I think we are going to be fine,” Chuang said.

Class sizes are still within the district’s guidelines, he said, acknowledging that “we will take a look later this week.”

Meanwhile, “The staff is all stepping up to welcome and integrate our new families.”

Asked by member Brad Morrison about the expected duration of the emergency sheltering, Chuang said, “I don’t think anyone knows.” But until suitable longer-term housing is identified, he said, “These are our students and we are going to staff as if they are going to be here” for the academic year.

Committee Chair Dan Brosgol congratulated the leadership and staff. “This is exceptionally hard. In a worst-case scenario, anything can happen.”

Member Sarah Scoville said, “It’s remarkable how everybody has hit the ground running and are helping these families.”

McGinley agreed: “It is a huge effort to support these families.”

“Our goal is to be welcoming to all new families irrespective of where they come from or what their circumstances are,” Chuang said.

Indeed, in grades 1-12, he said, there are 142 students new to Bedford, including 40 from Hanscom Air Force Base, he reported. 

Total enrollment as of Friday was 2,535 students – four less than last school year’s total, Chuang said. He emphasized that the complete year-to-year comparison will be made around Oct. 1.

“I do want to take a closer look,” he told the committee. “Is there a particular grade where we are losing kids at a higher rate? People don’t realize there is this mobility – we are always seeing new families.”

In answer to Brosgol’s question, Chuang said that with the addition of refugee children, kindergarten enrollment is around 150 students. Brosgol noted that a few years ago, the number was close to 200 students.

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