San Juan, Puerto Rico
As schools throughout Puerto Rico launched a new academic year this week, some students and staff were still grappling with the physical damage and the complications wrought by Hurricane Maria’s devastation of the island-wide school system nearly a year ago.
Leaky roofs, overdue repairs, and scarce supplies. Students packed into unfamiliar schools after a wave of closures and reassignments. Hundreds of teachers still awaiting placement, and community tensions over school conditions and a controversial move toward charter schools championed by the system’s top administrators.
And amid it all, the tenacity of educators and students determined to see the 2018-19 school year as a fresh start after the chaos of last year.
Secretary of Education Julia Keleher has been the central figure in directing the school system’s recovery, setting a path forward that has drawn both praise and harsh criticism for the significant policy decisions and directives. In an interview at an elementary school in San Juan kicking off the new school year this week, she was interrupted by one of Hurricane Maria’s more difficult and discouraging legacies: a power outage.
As the lights went out, Keleher didn’t miss a beat in outlining and defending her blueprint, a blend of school consolidations, streamlining, a push for new charter-like schools, and new required school programs.
“What we have to do is make sure that all kids have an opportunity to learn. It was available to some and not available to all,” said Keleher on Monday, the opening day for Puerto Rico’s schools. “The characteristics of the existing system are not the characteristics of the system that I want. What I have today is not the system I aspire to create.”
Her opponents, including union leaders and some parents, are resolved to confront Keleher’s vision head on. The result is a volatile start to a school year in which the arguments are strident and uncertainty still prevails.
Parents in Canóvanas, east of San Juan, entered one school that was way behind on repairs and maintenance to angrily demand answers, while at a school in Cidra, close to the center of the island, students exchanged hugs between a placid start to lessons.
And at a teacher walkout and protest in San Juan Wednesday organized by a progressive teachers group, the Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, more than hundred protesters chanted that they would fight the changes in the education system, and that Keleher should “go home.” (Keleher is not Puerto Rican.)
Anibal A. Rivera Flores said he walked out for better pay, for more teachers to be hired in schools, and against charters.
“The people need to protest, the people need to resist. If we don’t protest, we don’t reach our goals,” said Flores, a teacher at Escuela Adela Rolón Fuentes in Toa Alta.
Striking a Balance
For her part, Keleher tried to balance maintaining order on the first day of school for this district of more-than 300,000 students with her quest to revamp the system long-term.
The day before classes began on Monday, Keleher announced that Puerto Rico’s first “alianza” school, designed to operate like a charter school and with a bilingual focus, would open in August. She had also successfully relocated teachers to new schools based on new minimum academic requirements at schools, not seniority.
Nearly a year after Hurricane Maria closed schools for months, created tremendous damage to education infrastructure, and sent many Puerto Rican families fleeing, Keleher predicted that this school year will feature “a better environment, happier teachers, kids who’ve had good learning experiences, and better outcomes.”
The way the island’s system has been arranged in the past, “You have people ... who are paying [for private school] who would really like to send their kids to a public school, but they’re worried about safety, they’re worried about books, they’re worried about teachers. I’m attacking all three of those,” Keleher said.
But critics of her vision have unleashed a barrage of attacks that had been building for months. They said that when Keleher closed more than 260 schools over the summer in response to an ongoing and significant drop in enrollment worsened by the hurricane, she unleashed chaos, leading to unhappy students in overcrowded and unfamiliar schools, and angry parents at school entrances.
Efforts to deal with overcrowding in the newly consolidated schools are clumsily disguised as temporary measures, they say. And rather than competing with private schools for students and resources, they charge, Keleher’s proposals for charters and vouchers would instead jeopardize public schools and drive educators away.
“She hasn’t done the justice to the children in Puerto Rico. ... She’s like a mini-DeVos,” said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, referring to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a voucher and charter supporter. Cruz was interviewed by Education Week during a visit Monday in San Antonio, Texas. (Keleher said the comparison isn’t warranted.) “She’s a pleasant person, but lately, she hasn’t been willing to answer questions from teachers.”
At Escuela Alfonso Casta Martinez in Maunabo on the southeast coast, 90 minutes away from the capital of San Juan, school Director Juana J. Hernández saw no sign of the repairs her building desperately needed as the school opened.
The roof lets in water that has shut down three rooms on the third floor and sometimes seeps into second-floor classrooms. Strips of metal roofing hang off the basketball court’s roof. The water fountains are broken. There is no telephone service and no librarian. And while Hernández is expecting new books from Keleher’s department, they had not arrived by the start of the year.
“I understand the fact that it is a process, and it takes a long time. But it’s taking an extremely long time,” said Hernández, adding she worries a trend that has seen the school’s enrollment shrink by 430 students—more than half—over nine years, will only accelerate in post-Maria conditions. “This is a small town. If students leave, then the consequences come.”
In Search of Answers
On Monday, 74 percent of the estimated 313,000 students island-wide showed up to school, although that opening-day percentage often starts the year low in Puerto Rico before rising.
That number remains an X-factor for Keleher. And several hundred tenured teachers had not been placed in schools yet at the start of the year, although Keleher said that’s a small portion of about 23,000 such teachers.
At one school east of San Juan, parents chose a direct confrontation with school leadership to get answers.
When the Department of Education closed one elementary school in the community of Canóvanas, they shifted students to another one nearby. The new school, Escuela Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos, was a 15-minute walk from the old one, Escuela Luis Muñoz Marin.
But that distance was not what concerned a group of close to 10 unhappy parents. On the first day of the school year, they marched through their children’s new school uninvited and began inspecting the rooms and expressing outrage about the conditions.
While some teachers were on hand instructing small groups of students, water was on the floor in some empty classrooms between desks. Chunks of the ceiling were missing in some rooms, or else it had suffered water damage. And other empty rooms had bags of debris and cleaning supplies strewn around, not even half-ready to receive students.
The parents, some of whom wore T-shirts from Muñoz Marin, their children’s old school, got into a heated argument with the school’s director about the situation before leaving.
Efforts to cope with the physical damage from last year’s storm continue.
The island’s education department requested 150 trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to place at schools, as part of a $142 million Federal Emergency Management Agency aid package for ongoing school repairs. One had just been set up at the Rafael M. de Labra school in San Juan, out of six that had been installed at the start of the year.
Last year, the school served grades 7-9. But when over the summer the department shut down a high school on the other side of a major highway, officials shifted those students to Rafael M. de Labra, turning it into combined middle and high school for grades 7-12.
Keleher and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló paid a visit Monday to the newly enlarged school to inspect to highlight the trailers’ usefulness for schools still undergoing repairs.
“The trailers weren’t purchased because we thought we were going to have a situation with overcrowding,” Keleher stressed, adding that contrary to how they’ve been perceived by some, school officials have texted her to ask if their school can have one.
But Keleher’s critics allege that the closure of schools under Keleher’s direction was a huge mistake that created jumbled student bodies and sucked up precious space at remaining schools. This mess, they say, necessitated a frantic grab for trailers.
Cruz, San Juan’s mayor, called the trailers “human cages” in her interview with Education Week, and said they were the result of understaffing as well as overcrowding.
Union leaders also levy criticism of the conditions as schools open.
“The chaos is so big I have never seen something like this,” said Aida Díaz, the president of the Associacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union, calling into the interview with Cruz.
‘Not That Kind of Person’
At the center of all the activity, and also perhaps caught in the middle, were the students themselves.
At Jeremy Hernández Díaz’s school in Cidra, the air conditioning was out of action in the August heat—not an unknown problem in U.S. mainland schools as well—and the WiFi was missing in action. Otherwise, Escuela Jesus T. Piñero was operating smoothly on its first day of the year, despite taking in 75 students from two nearby closed schools out of a student body of 456.
Unlike her counterpart at the high school in Manuabo, school Director Talia Méndez registered no major complaints so far with the start of the year; she credited a new data system bolstered by Keleher’s department for helping her transition new students into the school.
Yet Jeremy, 16, a high school junior, felt torn about his future. Last year when his school reopened after Hurricane Maria, he felt that teachers moved through lessons too quickly. He said his father and brother in Texas say he should come to the U.S. mainland to go college and then start the career he wants in engineering. They’ve sent Jeremy a clear message: He can make more money that way.
Still, he is excited for the new school year at Jesus T. Piñero. And Puerto Rico still has a hold on him and his vision for his life.
“I don’t want to leave my family behind,” Jeremy said. “I’m not that kind of person.”
Staff writer Francisco Vara-Orta contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2018 edition of Education Week as Clashing Visions as Puerto Rico Schools Open