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Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher Is Stepping Down

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 01, 2019 5 min read
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Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher is leaving her position as the island’s top K-12 official, and will serve as an adviser at the island’s education department to help with the leadership transition and ongoing policy changes.

The new education secretary for Puerto Rico on an interim basis will be Eleuterio Álamo, who currently oversees the Puerto Rico education department’s San Juan regional office. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who also picked Keleher to be the secretary, announced Alamo as the new secretary on Tuesday. Keleher, who assumed the role of education secretary for the U.S. territory in January 2017, will also take on a new project as a consultant for schools on the Puerto Rican island of Culebra. Álamo appealed to Puerto Rico’s leadership because of his experience dealing with schools in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and its largest city, and the complexity that work entails.

Keleher is stepping down from her role effective Tuesday. Her salary of $250,000 for her new role as an adviser to the department will be paid for by the island’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority—her salary as secretary has also been paid for by that agency. Technically, she’s been a contractor to the department during her time as secretary, and will remain so after she steps down. Last year, Keleher said she envisioned staying on as secretary for several more years.

In a new Commentary on, Keleher describes her decision to step down and the “pivotal moment” facing public education in Puerto Rico and the island itself.

“We’ve finished phase one. Phase two, the running of this, requires a different leader,” Keleher said in an interview of the government’s plan to revamp schools. “I’m more of a change agent. Now, what we need is someone to hold the course.”

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, Keleher and other educators were confronted with a humanitarian crisis that crippled the island for months and presented a slew of dire problems for the its public school system, which educated roughly 350,000 students before the storm and had been struggling academically and financially for years.

See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track

Keleher won praise from some quarters for her determination to revamp K-12 in the U.S. territory. She focused on teachers’ professional development, getting more and better materials to classrooms, and forging closer connections between schools and the private sector. Yet other policies she successfully pursued, such as a new law allowing for charter schools and vouchers, as well as the closure of hundreds of schools on the heels of declining enrollment, drew her into frequent conflict with the island’s teachers’ unions. At a San Juan rally last summer in opposition to her record, protesters shouted, “Julia go home!” (Keleher is not Puerto Rican.)

Asked earlier if she would be a sort of shadow education secretary in her new role, Keleher stressed that she would not second-guess Alamo’s decisions, but also wanted to ensure what she and the governor had put in place would not be disrupted. Noting that Alamo has worked at the department for decades, she said she felt “really good about someone from inside taking over.”

Álamo said he was looking forward to continuing ongoing education reforms, according to the Associated Press.

For her upcoming work on Culebra, Keleher said she wants to work closely with one small community to see “how to make each municipality’s educational system respond to their local needs.” She says that Culebra, for example, should be a magnet for tourism and that schools could help prepare students to work in that industry.

“We’re going to try from the bottom up,” Keleher said, describing her goal.

Progress and Friction

Keleher minimized her well-publicized friction with the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (the island’s union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers), saying that aside from school choice and school closures, she didn’t believe she had serious conflict with the labor group. She highlighted a recent announcement that she plans to institute a pay raise for teachers, for example.

However, it’s worth noting that those two major fights went to court, as the union sought in vain to stop both school closures and the law permitting charters and vouchers—one charter is open this school year in Puerto Rico, and two more are slated to start next year. The voucher program is also slated to start in the 2019-20 school year. And it’s worth highlighting that several days ago, the American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten highlighted the push to oppose the spread of charters in Arecibo, west of San Juan.

There’s a ream of statistics that Keleher and her team have showcased to demonstrate the island’s progress during her two-year tenure. These include:

  • Delivering 1.2 million textbooks and “digital resources” to classrooms covering core subjects;
  • Increasing the number of nurses in schools from 32 to 430, with each nurse getting training in screening for trauma;
  • Upgrading the internet bandwidth at schools;
  • Distributing 150,000 laptops and tablets to schools.

One of the biggest remaining problems for the island’s public schools is their state of repair. In January, Keleher said it would ultimately cost $11 billion to get damaged and deteriorating schools up to the necessary building standards.

“The school buildings are a real challenge,” Keleher said. “Not having a beautiful, modern, healthy, safe, engaging learning environment—that’s going to be a longer road.”

In the short term, Keleher said whether test scores rise is an important barometer for improving schools. Over the longer term, she wants to see greater connections develop between schools and the island’s business community.

Asked if she would have done anything differently if given a do-over, Keleher responded, “I don’t have regrets. I think I learned a lot and I grew a lot as a person. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would like to take the time to create stronger, closer connections with each of the communities, and understand their needs.”

Watch our Education Week video published a year after Hurricane Maria about the ongoing challenges for America’s “forgotten school system” below:

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo: Julia Keleher in San Juan in October 2017, during her initial efforts to help schools and educators recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck the island the previous month. (Swikar Patel/Education Week)

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