School & District Management

In Puerto Rico, a Daunting Effort to Reopen Schools, Headed by a Determined Leader

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 08, 2017 | Updated: October 09, 2017 | Corrected: October 09, 2017 6 min read
Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher works at her makeshift headquarters in the convention center in San Juan, trying to find out information about the state of the nearly 1,200 schools in the U.S. territory. By Oct. 10, Keleher hopes to have 100 schools reopened, although getting back to regular academic classes might remain a challenge in many schools for months.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of students in Puerto Rico’s school system. It’s more than 350,000.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Can Puerto Rico’s schools get back on their feet in just over a month after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria? The U.S. territory’s top school official is making a push to do just that.

There’s been little sleep for Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher as she and her staff work the phones and back channels from a busy command center here to get as many schools open as possible within the next two weeks. Doing so could bring much-needed solace and stability to the commonwealth’s 350,000 students and their families in the aftermath of one of the worst storms to hit the commonwealth in recent memory.

That could mean very different things for communities depending on where they are.

On Monday, Keleher said the goal was to have 165 schools open by Tuesday. That includes the initial 22 schools that opened their doors to students last week for basic academic activities, emotional support, and to give them and their families basic necessities after the hurricane.

That’s still a far cry from getting the nearly 1,200 public schools in Puerto Rico back online. And it will be a challenging task for all viable schools to reopen by Oct. 23, the date Keleher has set for school leaders and in public statements.

A school’s leaders can’t just decide to open if they want to: First, the school needs to be structurally sound, relatively free of debris, and have water for sanitation purposes. Many schools could be torn down as a result of the devastation from the storm.

And it’s unwise to think that schools will reopen at a smooth, geometric pace. Some, like those in mountain towns like Utuado, will probably take many more weeks or months before they can open back up for something resembling normal activities.

But Keleher said that after looking at additional data on schools over the weekend, she thinks there are 227 more schools that can open once workers clear away debris. Another 577 could reopen once they get cisterns for holding water, she added.

Keleher and other Puerto Rico education officials have been working to line up help for the island’s schools from fellow school officials in Florida, as well as support for teachers.

Keleher is also juggling interagency work. For example, on Monday, she met with a coordinating committee trying to use various community hubs, including schools, as “Stop and Go” centers where residents can get everything from a clean meal to a washing machine and WiFi service. It’s an initiative begun by Puerto Rico’s first lady, Beatriz Areizaga.

Keleher is getting help from the Council of the Great City Schools and is also lining up aid from school officials in the Miami-Dade school district and from the University of North Carolina to provide support for educators.

“We understand that if our teachers aren’t well, they’re not going to be able to take care of our students,” said Keleher, who’s been Puerto Rico’s schools chief since January and took over a system with a massive debt and that had to close a large number of schools recently.

As for the U.S. Department of Education, Keleher said she appreciates the funding flexibility that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has provided. What else do Keleher and her department need to help schools recover? Congress could also waive requirements around adult and special education. And Keleher said she looks at the funding package given to schools in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and says something similar would be appropriate for her schools.

“Those restart funds were huge [after Katrina],” Keleher said in an interview here with Education Week. “If we’re strategic about it, it’s only going to advance our reforms quicker.”

Reality on the Ground

Strategy can’t change the realities. At a minimum, about 35 instructional days will be lost if schools begin something like regular academic work later this month. For many, that lost time could extend for months. And the delay, however long, will have a tremendous domino effect. To name just one example, college entrance exams for many students were slated to start the week of Oct. 9.

Officials from the Puerto Rico education department are sharing temporary space with military personnel, other officials, and aid workers at San Juan’s convention center.

Right now, activities at schools that are open consist of providing students the opportunity to talk about their experiences during the hurricane and giving them both an emotional outlet and a positive support system. In addition, other schools are providing supplies to students and their families.

Students at one middle school, for example, were cutting out paper images of hands and writing what they would do to help others affected by the hurricane.

Some of Keleher’s most difficult moments have come when she’s watched poor families in remote areas move into shuttered school buildings with all of their possessions, seeking shelter.

“It’s the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” Keleher said. “That’s kind of heartbreaking, but it’s inspiring. It makes one very committed.”

In order to operate, Keleher told us, schools have to have running water and be structurally sound: Nothing on school grounds can look like it’s about to crash down on top of people. Power isn’t a necessity—if a school has a generator, that’s more than enough. But that means plenty of schools with no air conditioning when the temperature is still reaching into the sticky high 80s and low 90s.

Supporting Students

These are the sorts of conditions, along with an uncertain future, that are driving teachers, among others, to leave the island and seek a better future for them and their children. How does Keleher deal with that dynamic? She’s more committed than when she began in January, but she’s also flexible.

“My main objective is that every child in Puerto Rico gets a quality education. If my system provides that, great. If another system in a state is going to provide that, that’s great too,” she said. “What I’m committed to is to work collaboratively with the leaders of those systems so that our students get a little briefcase, and they can go. So that we help them. That’s what we’re here for. The adults can figure out what’s important to adults later. ... I need to make sure if that kid goes, that kid has everything he or she needs to adapt.”

The Puerto Rican education department itself isn’t back at home yet: Keleher and her top staffers have relocated from their normal headquarters to the island’s convention center, cheek by jowl with military personnel, aid workers, and other Puerto Rican government officials.

So far Keleher and her education department are still missing information on many schools damaged in the storm.

On Saturday, Keleher was working with her chief of staff, Carmen Denton, and Ruben Huertas, her top legal adviser, to get data to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about the state of individual schools. The engineer corps, in turn, would then make decisions about which schools would get priority. So far, her department had gathered information about roughly 85 percent of the territory’s public schools.

The week following the storm, she only had information about a third of the schools. In Humacao and in Caguas, some of the hardest-hit areas, there’s still missing data on the schools.

Keleher is also negotiating with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use schools as warehouses for food to distribute to communities, beyond the meals and other necessities already being provided to surrounding neighborhoods. And she was wrangling with federal authorities about reimbursement for funds. That sort of bureaucratic jujitsu is possible even in this situation, Keleher said, but only if the demands of paperwork are met and rules are followed.

Follow @educationweek on Instagram to see more of our pictures from Puerto Rico.
A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2017 edition of Education Week

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