'We Have to Go Forward': Puerto Rico's Students Head Back to School

Tjeyder Manuel Díaz Vélez, a senior at Escuela Alfonso Casta Martinez in Manaubo, works at his parents’ restaurant. He has deep ties to his community, but still aspires to move to the U.S. mainland, drawn by what he sees as greater cultural diversity and the chance to earn a better living.
Tjeyder Manuel Díaz Vélez, a senior at Escuela Alfonso Casta Martinez in Manaubo, works at his parents’ restaurant. He has deep ties to his community, but still aspires to move to the U.S. mainland, drawn by what he sees as greater cultural diversity and the chance to earn a better living.
—Swikar Patel/Education Week
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Maunabo, Puerto Rico

The eye of Hurricane Maria swept over southeast Puerto Rico on the morning of Sept. 20, 2017, just north of Escuela Alfonso Casta Martínez. Nearly a year after the storm caused great physical damage and emotional turmoil across the island, the high school in Maunabo, some 90 minutes south of San Juan, has reopened for the new school year. Yet fundamental challenges remain to keeping students enrolled and their minds in a good place to learn.

At the center of that effort is Kiomary Rodríguez García, the school's social worker. At the start of this year, members of the staff painted parts of the building, and the school welcomed students with candy in an effort to create a positive atmosphere. But García knows many students have struggled emotionally after losing their homes—even being apart from their families while they attend school during the day has been difficult.

The school has lost more than half its enrollment over the past nine years, and now educates just 321 students. García worries that the exodus will continue as students leave for more attractive career and technical education programs at other nearby schools.


See Also: Putting Puerto Rico's Schools Back on Track


"We need new courses or classes that can help retain the students," said García, who graduated from the school and has worked there for 22 years. "We need to offer them other opportunities so they can achieve their goals and learn the things they like."

Her students, she added, have a "global mindset." But it's the students' state of mind that has the island's education leaders very concerned.

Last spring, Puerto Rico's Department of Education began a survey to gather information about the mental health and psychological needs of both students and educators. However, as of late August, the department had not shared the results of that island-wide survey publicly.

The fallout from Hurricane Maria has created major and continued disruptions to the island's education system and its students. The education department closed more than 260 public schools over the summer due to declining enrollment triggered in part by the storm, leading many students to be reassigned to new schools. Repairs continue at storm-damaged schools. And at the start of the school year, it was uncertain how many students were actually enrolled, although department estimates put the figure at roughly 300,000.

We interviewed several students at Escuela Alfonso Casta Martínez about their lives, their hopes and concerns as they headed back to school, and their thoughts about the future nearly one year after Hurricane Maria.


Tjeyder Manuel Díaz Vélez

—Swikar Patel/Education Week

Tjeyder Manuel Díaz Vélez feels such a strong connection to his school that he has written a poem to welcome incoming freshmen, urging them: "Don't leave for tomorrow what you can do today." After school, Tjeyder doesn't just sit at home: He slings fried chicken and plantains at his family restaurant, Trigo Alrdiente. And he recalls how his mother and stepfather handed out bread to help other families in Maunabo immediately after Hurricane Maria.

But Tjeyder's affection for his school, his family, and his community aren't enough to keep him in Puerto Rico.

"I'm thankful for my life. But I want to be in the United States" on the mainland, he says during a break at Trigo Alrdiente, which overlooks Maunabo's main drag and, just a block beyond that, the Caribbean Sea. His sister walks up and down the restaurant patio engrossed in an intricate phone conversation. Laughter swells and fades from the bar, where veteran patrons treat Tjeyder like a favorite nephew. As he displays photos of his family's steak and lobster dishes on his own phone, his voice rises and swells with pride.

He likes the U.S. mainland's cultural diversity—he's been to California and Texas—and the chance he'd get to earn a better living than in Maunabo.

I’m thankful for my life. But I want to be in the United States.”
Tjeyder Manuel Díaz Vélez

Being back at school is a strange experience, he says. One of the things he misses most are the several trees knocked down by Maria. Without them, it's tough for students to find shade at the school where air conditioning doesn't reach the classrooms and the outdoor basketball court's roof is a shredded safety hazard.

One thing there's more of this year: time in school. Classes were cut to just 30 minutes apiece once the year resumed after Maria.

"It was difficult. They helped us, they never gave up on us," he says of his teachers. "Now I have more time to study. Now I have more time to do the classwork."

Not all of his memories about the time after Maria disturb him. In fact, he says, without cell phone service or power, he went outside on his bike instead of playing video games indoors. He reconnected with his neighborhood in a new way. Tjeyder misses it.

"Every day, I was playing outside with people I never knew [before]," Tjeyder recalls. "They were my neighbors."


Ricardo E. Rosario Vega

A teacher didn't come to Alfonso Casta Martínez on the second day of school this year, and there's no substitute, leaving students like Ricardo E. Rosario Vega at loose ends. At least one student vaults the school fence to leave the school without permission, and there's no outcry from the school security guard.

—Swikar Patel/Education Week

It's easy to draw a line between Ricardo's frustration about the official response to the storm, his determination to make it through his time without running water and power, and the attitude the 11th grader has towards school. He's not dwelling on the shortened 2017-18 school year, when Alfonso Casta Martinez only held classes from 8 a.m. to noon even after it was closed for several weeks.

"I feel like, certainly, a little bit behind," Ricardo says, as students lounge and tap on their phones in a neighboring stone pavilion.

Two days after Ricardo turned 15, Hurricane Maria struck Maunabo. As the storm raged, the man who lived next to his grandmother died of a heart attack. He recalls how sad he was to see that man's home being repaired even after he had died.

But he also remembers a night about a week after the storm when his cousins came to his house with flashlights. They played cards and board games. And they talked for a long time about all kinds of things, from the stars to the government's response to Maria, which he says left him feeling "pissed."

It took workers a week to clear the road around his house, the back of which was damaged. He washed his clothes in a nearby river for some time. He shrugs it off.

"If we, as students, work hard, and try to get back to where we were, there won’t be problems."
Ricardo E. Rosario Vega

"Those are only material possessions. We still have our lives. We have to go forward," says Ricardo.

"If we, as students, work hard, and try to get back to where we were, there won't be problems," Ricardo adds.

College is part of Ricardo's plan, and he's open to moving to the U.S. mainland at some point. But ideally, he'd like to stay in Puerto Rico. He's interested in becoming an aerospace engineer.

"I think I like creating and fixing stuff," Ricardo says.


Yamaris Amaro Brito

It's never easy to switch schools, especially in the middle of the year. But when Yamaris Amaro Brito showed up to Alfonso Casta Martínez as a 10th grader late last year nervous and shy, she had good reasons.

—Swikar Patel/Education Week

A month into the 2017-18 school year in nearby Humacao, Hurricane Maria knocked down her family's house. When she saw her clothes scattered about and the kitchen wrecked, she started to cry. Her mother had Yamaris and her 10 brothers to provide for. The lines of people waiting for food and water, people without power, stick with her. So do fonder memories even amidst the chaos.

With her phone out of commission, Yamaris says, "Hurricane Maria made me talk to my mother, [my] brothers. It was good, but difficult at the same time."

They moved in with Yamaris' grandmother in Maunabo, and several weeks later, Yamaris, now 16, was able to start school at Alfonso Casta Martínez. Her early shyness has faded in the promise of a new school year.

"Now I can see my friends," Yamaris says.

She, her mother, and six other siblings have moved again into their own home. Late one afternoon after school, her younger brothers and sisters sprawl on the floor and at the small kitchen table, intent on their coloring. A fan blows cool air down on a brightly lit fish tank in the small living room. There's no air conditioning. A dive into her family's broken outdoor pool would lead to all concrete and no water.

"Hurricane Maria made me talk to my mothers, [my] brothers. It was good, but difficult at the same time."
Yamaris Amaro Brito

A newspaper in Yamaris' house touts historic gains in retail sales in Puerto Rico, thanks to business at hardware stores and supermarkets. Greater access to government nutrition benefits and additional hurricane recovery payments are also cited. But signs of the storm's wrath are still visible everywhere. Around the corner from Yamaris' house, a blue tarp is stretched tautly across a neighbor's roofless house, and a top-floor window is still missing glass.

When Yamaris wants food, she often walks a few minutes to her classmate Tjeyder's restaurant. Thinking about her future, her mind goes to two older brothers who live in Boston. She wants to attend college there in preparation for a medical career.

"I want to have a better life there," she says of Boston. "I like Puerto Rico. This is my place. But I want to study there."


Tania M. Arroyo

—Swikar Patel/Education Week

The ruptured and unnaturally fast pace of the last school year unsettled Tania M. Arroyo. Even when classes resumed, Alfonso Casta Martínez's half days made learning difficult.

"You had to do all the work really [fast]. It was really difficult for us," says Tania, who's 17 and in the 12th grade. "You had to learn real quick."

She's nervous about what her senior year will bring. Tania's family didn't lose their home, but many of her friends and neighbors did, and they scattered.

"I would love to be a doctor here, with my family and friends. I would love that, because this is my country."
Tania M. Arroyo

"They have part of your heart. It was hard losing them," she recalls. "Some of them came back to Puerto Rico. But some of them stayed over there [on the U.S. mainland]."

Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and not an independent nation. But that's not how Tania thinks about it. She wants to study medicine at the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao, a short drive north from Maunabo, and then come back to her community to work.

"I would love to be a doctor here, with my family and friends," she says. "I would love that, because this is my country."


Related Videos

In this collection of videos, see how the people of Puerto Rico are responding to the devastation of Hurricane Maria and working to rebuild their lives—and their schools.

Vol. 38, Issue 02, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: August 29, 2018, as Student Voices From Puerto Rico
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