Every morning at Dover Elementary, near the strawberry fields of Plant City, upbeat music used to blare from speakers outside the front gate. I first met school resource officer Pedro Arroyo there one day in January. He greeted the children as they came in. Many stopped to give him a handshake, a fist bump, or a hug.
"Ah, there she is. This is my dancer right here," he said, as little girl in a ponytail walked up and handed him her water bottle. She gestured for him to put it in her open backpack. So he did. Then, she headed toward the school door and started to dance with some of the other staff.
"There she goes. Every morning, every day, she comes in and dances. Every morning, every day. Hola Lupita!"
Arroyo is a 37-year-old father of five, born in Puerto Rico. He was assigned to this school about a year ago, and realized quickly that many of these kids faced big challenges.
“When I arrived at this school, I didn’t know what I was walking into,” he said.
The kids enjoy the music in the mornings, but Arroyo said it’s also played to make the parents more comfortable when they drop kids off at the school.
“Ninety six percent of our school, they are migrants. It’s a migrant community from all over South America,” he said.
A lot of the parents are from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Cuba. Some are undocumented, many are poor, and as migrant farmworkers, they move around, uprooting their children multiple times in a single school year.
At Dover, the school population swells from about 600 students in the fall, to around 1,000 in peak strawberry season in January and February.
Then usually by April, before school ends, the farmworker families move on to another state, maybe Michigan, or North Carolina, where they can find work in the fields again.
Arroyo noticed some of the children struggled with school work, or showed behavioral problems.
“The first thing I wanted to see was, who is working with these kids? How can I get in with them? How do we help them?"
Many parents were suspicious of him, an officer in uniform.
“I've had a parent come to me and say, ‘Hey, are you here to deport people?’ I was like, ‘I'm not ICE. That's not my job.I don't care whether you're here legally or illegally. That is not my job or any of my business. My job is to make sure you're safe, your kids are safe, the community is safe.”
Soon, Arroyo came up with an idea for a way in. He speaks fluent Spanish, as do most of the children. But the native language for most of those arriving from Guatemala is a Mayan dialect called Q’eqchi.
So he signed up for a 12-week course and learned to speak a few phrases.
“I can say stuff like, 'What is your name?' I can say, 'Thank you.' I can say, 'My name is Officer Arroyo, welcome to the world's best school.'”
Being able to speak a little of the Guatemalan families' native language helped gain their trust, he said.
“Whenever I come across people that don't speak English or Spanish, they only speak Q’eqchi, they're always coming up to me hesitant and with their walls up. And whenever they understand what's coming out of my mouth, it sounds familiar. It gives them a sense of familiarity and comfort. And the wall starts coming down and they start getting comfortable and they talk to me," he said.
"I've gotten as far as people telling me their ordeal getting to this country. Mind you, I work only in the school. And I know a lot of what goes on in those communities. They trust me that much.”
That day in January, Carol Mayo, supervisor of the migrant education program in Hillsborough County Public Schools, told me that Arroyo's willingness to go above and beyond with local families even helped get more children into school.
“I think the school won the lottery when they got him here. And I feel like I did too," said Mayo.
"Because really, what he was saying about being able to communicate -- it was his ‘in’ that allowed us to piggyback on that and get some more kids enrolling because there's a ton of kids not even enrolling in school because they didn't -- School is scary. School is government. Government is bad for us. So they just didn't come.”
This story was scheduled to air in March, but it turned out, that’s just when schools were closing due to coronavirus.
I recently reached out to Officer Arroyo, to ask how his life has changed. He said he’s found a new role in the same community.
“Although there is no school right now I am still currently working with the Hillsborough County public school system. Certain days, Mondays and Wednesday to be exact, we go out in school buses and deliver meals for the students in the community.
“It definitely does feel refreshing to be outside in the community and be able to reach out to the same students that I serve at Dover Elementary. It does feel nice to get that wave although I can’t do hugs and dance but it is all in the name of safety and following protocols in order to maintain that social distancing.
"But it has changed a lot, in the sense that I am not able to mentor those kids that I would on a daily basis. I do get to see some of them and encourage them to keep doing their homework online and connecting so that way, they can go to their next grade," he said.
“One thing that I did discover about myself is I like to stay active within the community. I like to help. It is what I have in my veins, in my blood.”
Officer Arroyo says he’s also involved in a new program helping kids learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Zoom, to encourage them to stay active and healthy while school’s out of session.
This story is produced in partnership with America Amplified, an initiative using community engagement to inform local journalism. It is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.