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Adding migrant children to Massachusetts schools a challenge and an opportunity, superintendent says

Massachusetts schools adapting to migrant crisis with help outside the classroom
Massachusetts schools adapting to migrant crisis with help outside the classroom 03:07

PEABODY - Massachusetts has been struggling to find emergency housing for the growing number of homeless and migrant families coming into the state. The crisis has also forced several cities and towns to add dozens of new students to their schools on short notice.

2,000 migrant children in Massachusetts schools

There are about 2,000 migrant children now enrolled in public schools across Massachusetts.

"It's been a challenge. I would definitely say it's been a challenge," Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala told WBZ-TV.

Peabody is one of 74 Massachusetts communities with new shelters housing migrants and that means more students suddenly added to those school systems.

"Tipped the scales" in Peabody

Vadala said it started back in September when Peabody gained twenty new students. That was just wave one.

"We received a number of students in December and then we received another group of students in January, and that really tipped the scales a little bit for us. It was very challenging," Vadala said.

By January, that number ballooned to forty, and there were so many kindergarteners that Peabody added another kindergarten class in the middle of the school year.

"So we hired an additional teacher. We hired an additional English language learner teacher to support the students. We hired another paraprofessional. We hired another counselor," the superintendent told WBZ.

Help beyond the classroom

But Vadala knew that to be successful, they had to take an even wider look at the issue beyond the classroom.

"The reason it's been successful is because how the whole city came together. And I think that's really the key. This is not just a school problem, this is not just a community problem or government problem, this is where everyone needs to come together and support one another," Vadala said.

Organizations and nonprofits, programs, and support from all areas of the city stepped in to help - from before and after school programs to tutors. There have even been cultural, fun field trips, like going to a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

"It can't be just focused on the school and the academics. It's got to be focused on the family, focused on the out of school time," Vadala said.

So, to meet the needs of the students, Vadala says they are meeting the needs of the families. And to do that, they hired a man who was staying at the shelter. He was once a professor in his home country. He speaks four languages and is now a vital liaison.

"He can communicate with them in their language and it's really helped, for us, to have that go between," Vadala told WBZ.

He admits that finding solutions are his only options.

"We have a responsibility"

"We didn't decide who comes to our schools and who lives in our community, but they're here and we have a responsibility to make a response," Vadala said "By law, we don't have a choice."

And a reminder, he said, that this should not be a win-or-lose situation.

"Everyone gets more"

"People really get worked up when they feel as though their kids are losing something. So we want to make sure that that's not happening," the superintendent said. "That's been the key in Peabody, is to make sure that when we take on more, it doesn't mean that someone else is getting less. The goal is that everyone gets more."

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