Puerto Rico Native, JHS Senior Eager To Accept Next Challenge

Pictured are Kiera Velez Cortes, a Jamestown High School senior, and Linda Lucas, a English as a New Language teacher. The pair recently talked about Cortes’ journey to graduation from JHS after moving from Puerto Rico. As a English as a Second Language or English as a New Language student, graduating within four years is considered a unique, and difficult, task. P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

Graduating from high school within four years can be difficult for some students. Add in learning English after moving from Puerto Rico and the dream of graduating within four years is nearly impossible, at least according to Jamestown Public Schools officials.

Kiera Velez Cortes is a Jamestown High School student about to accomplish just that on Thursday. She came to the United States, specifically Jamestown, as a ninth-grader with her mother and four of her five siblings. One caveat for many students who come to the United States from Puerto Rico is that they cannot speak English — a limitation that typically holds students from Puerto Rico back in an English-speaking country.

To make the situation more difficult, Cortes has never known her father.

Cortes brushed off the tough situation and said, “Yeah, but I have my mom.”

The already complicated situation became more complex last year when Cortes gave birth to her daughter, Ana Sophia. Despite the added obligations and stress, she is set to graduate this week

Students who move from Puerto Rico are typically tasked with learning English as a new or second language. The time it takes to learn the language means graduating in the typical four years does not happen very often.

Why? Linda Lucas, an English as a Second Language teacher, said it can be attributed to simply having to learn a new language on top of maintaining passing grades in order to graduate within four years.

“Usually it takes longer than four years,” Lucas said. “To arrive in ninth grade, with really not (knowing) a lot of English at all, to graduating on time, (Cortes’) English has developed remarkably. It’s a real testament to her work ethic and her commitment to learning English.”

Lucas also explained that the duration of high school for students in similar situations depends on their specific “motivation level.” Lucas said Cortes’ motivation level exceeded expectations.

“(Cortes) was one of those highly motivated people that asked for help and was willing to stay after and go the extra mile to try and bring her English to where it needs to be,” Lucas said.

Cortes said Lucas and her other ESL teacher, Kiersten Hanson, helped her excel.

Despite having the odds stacked against her, Cortes is about to accomplish what is considered to be unique by Jamestown’s standards. On Thursday, Cortes will walk across the stage and accept her diploma with her family in the audience.

Having her family, especially her mother, in the attendance is important to Cortes because she understands all of the sacrifices her mother made for her to make it to this point.

“She couldn’t go to college because she had all of us at the time,” Cortes said. “She wasn’t able to do her goals.”

Cortes said she can see big differences between her ninth grade self and herself now. “I grew up a lot here,” she said. “When I started in ninth grade I had a sensitive, emotional thing with people.”

She said she is more patient because of her confidence. She admitted the experience wasn’t easy over the course of ninth, 10th and 11th grades.

“I had to fight in classes and with my work,” she said of succeeding in school.

Cortes will be earning a Regents diploma with a Career Development and Occupational Studies certification.

“We are very proud if Kiera and her accomplishments,” said Mike McElrath, JHS principal.

“I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to overcome these barriers and to accomplish her goals. We’re thankful to all those who have supported her including her teachers, counselors and family. It’s also great to see that our community is ready to support her in the next steps of her education.”

Cortes said she got a handle on speaking English during her sophomore year of high school one year after arriving here.

“Usually it takes six or seven years to become fluent in a language, but she really picked it up really well,” Lucas said.

Cortes said the hardest aspect of learning English was trying to keep up and understand in class.

“(Initially) I could not speak English or understand the English so I had to put in a lot of hard work there,” Cortes said.

She said speaking English outside of school with friends and family really helped speed up the process of learning the language. She would often ask for help from her older brother who learned English before and graduated from Jamestown previously.

After graduation, Cortes plans to attend Jamestown Business College for medical administration and pursue a career as a social worker.

As to why she wants to continue her education locally, she cited her family as the primary inspiration.

“I have a family right now,” she said of her inspirations. “I have a daughter.”

An ideal situation for Cortes would to become a school social worker and be able to work with children. With her CDOS credential requirements at JHS she volunteered at the Eastside YMCA where worked with kids throughout high school.

She explained that her favorite aspect of her volunteer work was “helping the kids.”

“For me they have a lot of passion to learn,” she said.

On top of everything else during her four years in Jamestown, Cortes has worked at KFC and currently works at Wegmans in Lakewood. She plans to continue working throughout her college career. With help from her family, Cortes believes she can continue her success throughout college.

After four years, Cortes has only been in Puerto Rico and Jamestown, the two places she has lived. While she has been limited to only seeing two places in the country she has aspirations of visiting New York City one day.

But as for returning to Puerto Rico, Cortes simply said “No.”

“I don’t have the opportunities there that I have here,” Cortes said.

But for students who might follow the same path as her, Cortes offered a few words of wisdom. “Always put yourself on the walk and smile,” she said. “Have the courage for major decisions.”