Opinion
School Climate & Safety Commentary

Puerto Rico’s Outgoing Education Secretary: ‘We Need the Help of Mainland Educators’

By Julia Keleher — April 03, 2019 5 min read
Education Week visited Puerto Rico several times to report on the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island's schools, teachers, and students. This photo was taken in Loíza on August 15, 2018.

Seventeen months ago, and eight months after I became the secretary of education in Puerto Rico, the worst hurricane in over a century decimated much of the island, dislocating thousands of families and bringing daily life here to a halt. Our school buildings were no exception; those that weren’t destroyed suffered damage ranging from power outages to missing roofs. We continue to wait for approval from FEMA to address most of our physical infrastructure needs and are hopeful that the federal government will honor its promise to ensure all students have access to a safe, healthy, and engaging learning environment.

The storm created an opportunity for the world to see the challenges confronting Puerto Rico’s schools. Hurricane Maria and its economic repercussions exposed the negative impacts of poor decision-making and the politicization of the public education system. The operation of the public schools was largely ineffective and inefficient and characterized by a mass exodus of students and teachers. Over the years, the system neglected to prioritize the provision of basic resources, such as books and technology, or allow for the development of innovative and more effective instructional practices.

Since then, Puerto Rico has made dramatic improvements in the quality of its public education system. Dedicated families, communities, teachers, and students have made it possible for great things to take place since the hurricane left our shores.

The storm created an opportunity for the world to see the challenges confronting Puerto Rico's schools."

The challenges forced us to make hard decisions to allocate scarce resources as efficiently as possible. We consolidated underutilized schools to free up resources for classrooms and implemented new standards to measure the success of our schools and their leaders. Since the storm, we have placed over 1 million books, designed 28 new STEM labs, and created libraries—both physical and virtual—across the island. We have begun distributing 150,000 new computers and tablets and upgrading bandwidth in all schools. We also created a new ecosystem of support that addresses the socio-emotional factors that impact our teachers and students. Health therapists trained to support adults are helping our educators overcome post-Maria personal challenges. Nurses are now in all of our schools conducting trauma screenings with a battalion of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

Our transformation continues as we implement landmark legislation that overhauls the education system, gives parents new school options, and decentralizes the bureaucracy. Today, our overworked and underpaid teachers are benefiting from their first salary increases in a decade, and we are investing in a human-capital management strategy to ensure our teachers are prepared to teach new classes in math, science, technology, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy. Teachers are now getting the resources and training to cultivate students’ interests and help them become problem-solvers.

San Juan, Feb. 1, 2018

However, there are many areas where we still face enormous challenges. Even though we were able to dedicate more than $140 million to rehabilitate school buildings across the island and received approval for an additional $289 million from FEMA for temporary repairs, we are still awaiting approval of at least $5 billion for permanent repairs and work over the next five to 10 years to address storm damage. To help reduce high youth unemployment and facilitate their transition into the workforce, we are preparing students to graduate this year and next with marketable skills, experience, and certification in construction and other trades, and have enlisted hundreds of local businesses to the cause. But this is just a drop in the bucket. There is so much more work to do to connect schools and employers to prepare students for real-world careers that also benefit the island’s recovery.

When I began my position as secretary of education, one of my priorities was to transform the culture within the department and our entire education system, so that professionalism, transparency, and accountability would become our guiding principles. We have taken positive steps, including shifting hiring to prioritize qualifications over political appointments; using technology to make it easier for parents and teachers to get their needs met; and crafting a new normal budget with a careful analysis of what education really costs and a realistic assessment of what our students, teachers, principals, and schools need. But we still lack a sense of urgency when it comes to responding to family and school requests and needs.

Today is a pivotal moment for public education in Puerto Rico and the island itself. We’ve made meaningful progress, but we will only succeed in ensuring all Puerto Rican students have equal access to a high-quality public education if those on the mainland in a position to help lend not only their funding, but also their collaboration, know-how, and energy. Due to the historic underinvestment in talent management, many Puerto Rico teachers need exposure to innovative practices to ensure our students will have the skills that they will need for success in the 21st century. We need the help of mainland educators and other professionals willing to come to Puerto Rico, work alongside teachers in our schools, and provide training on new skills and best practices. We need the help of education nonprofits to train our staff on supporting the myriad of challenges that our students bring into the classrooms every day. And we need philanthropic support to fund these types of programs and the continued support of the federal government to rebuild and transform our physical infrastructure.

Puerto Rico’s schools—and most importantly its youth—stand at a crossroads. Our journey from recovery to rebirth can succeed, but only if the rest of the country comes to our support.

We place our trust in Washington, and our hopes in talented educators, dedicated nonprofits and philanthropic donors to grant us the opportunity to improve the education our children receive.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Puerto Rico’s Outgoing Ed. Secretary Looks Ahead

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