School Climate & Safety

A Pair of Rural Schools Struggle Back in Puerto Rico

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 13, 2018 4 min read
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Utuado, Puerto Rico

Eric Collazo, a security guard at the Marta Lafontaine elementary and middle school in an isolated corner of this rural community, stares over the edge of a cliff-side road at a house that fell down the mountain. Next to him, black graffiti bleeding over a broken wedge of white stone declares that a family living on the edge of that road has moved to a house nearby.

Sixty-one of his school’s 137 students—44 percent—are still absent months after his school reopened in the wake of Hurricane Maria last fall, he said. The school has no electricity, and it operates on a truncated schedule.

But Collazo is confident in Marta Lafontaine’s ability to bounce back and stick around, just like the family that escaped death in the house below him.

“Hurricane Maria made our kids stronger,” Collazo said. “They’ve learned how to deal with tough situations.”

The view overlooking Lake Coanillas in Utuado. The graffiti on the left says, “We are in the next house up the hill.”

Roughly 45 minutes away, English teacher Migdalia Luciano López works on a half-day schedule at the Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School, on the town of Utuado’s main drag. The school has intermittent power and water. The bathrooms make López cringe. And some students stay home when the school’s lights don’t flick on. Those who do attend often struggle.

“They are very distracted. Sometimes when we don’t have power, it’s dark in the classrooms. We don’t have any air conditioning,” López said. “It is hot in the classroom. They don’t concentrate. And it is kind of hard for them.”

The two schools are in one of the areas of Puerto Rico hit hardest by the hurricane five months ago. The educators who staff both of them work hard, and carefully, with their students.

Resilient, But Worried

To get to Marta Lafontaine since Hurricane Maria, Collazo must wend his way along narrow and washed-out roads shielded from the cliff, in some cases, by rough concrete barriers. Traffic workers hold up school buses and other vehicles so others can cross in a single line on the narrow pathways above Lake Coanillas. Workers for Puerto Rico’s power authority scurry back and forth across the dam at the lake, where a spillway drops hundreds of feet.

Collazo is an unelected mayor of the roadway, chattering with—and at—many of those who drive or walk past. At Marta Lafontaine, however, the staff stays away from one subject few need reminding of: the storm.

“We try to get their minds off the hurricane and into the school,” said Mirelys Bilbraut, a social worker at Marta Lafontaine. “We don’t want to talk to them about the hurricane. That’s past, that’s history. This is a new beginning for us.”

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

A chicken has taken a liking to one of the classrooms one afternoon when Marta Lafontaine is closed. The school’s garden, which featured coffee plants and spinach, is now overgrown even after the resumption of classes. For a while after the hurricane, Collazo said, the school served as a shelter for about 60 people.

Eric Collazo, a security guard at Marta Lafontaine elementary and middle school in Utuado, Puerto Rico, is confident the school will overcome the challenges it still faces in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

But the covered basketball court is in good shape, and a small greenhouse still stands.

Collazo knows what the school needs most of all, assuming it has power and water.

“We need all those people that fled to the United States to come back,” he said. “We love our school.”

Yet he’s still anxious. Collazo believes that the Puerto Rico education department wants to keep his school open, but that if it does, it might transfer many teachers to other schools. Marta Lafontaine might live on, but in a shrunken state.

Officially, the majority of students and teachers who left after Maria have come back to Bernardo Gonzalez Colon from places like Florida and Texas, according to López, who said there are 321 students and 29 teachers at the school.

Compared with counterparts in other rural areas, the school is lucky because it has power. A few blocks away, there’s a busy Walgreen’s, a gas station, and Utuado’s National Guard outpost. And across the river, power lines that were lying by the roadside in early October had been put back up by late January.

But classes are now just half an hour, which means the teachers assign less homework and approach the coursework differently. They try to get some of their work done at home, assuming they have power themselves.

‘Falling Behind’

López worries about where things are headed.

A school bus traverses the rural mountaintops of Utuado, Puerto Rico.

“We are falling a little bit behind,” she said. She adds that the load on teachers is heavy because they struggle with their own difficulties at home: “If you ask every single one of the teachers in Puerto Rico right now, they’re going to tell you that, yes, we’re kind of burned out. We have difficulties like every other person.”

Like Marta Lafontaine, López’s school served in the Maria recovery effort. Bernardo Gonzalez Colon staff members helped prepare hundreds of meals in their cafeteria for people in another Utuado school, Judith A. Vivas, that served as a temporary shelter.

López tries to take a gentle approach with her students.

“We help them, and we listen to them, and we give them love,” she said. “I think that’s what really matters right now—not to push them too hard, but try to do our best.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2018 edition of Education Week as A Pair of Rural Schools Struggle Back in Puerto Rico

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