School Climate & Safety Opinion

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

By Julia Keleher — April 03, 2019 | Updated: April 04, 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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Puerto Rico’s Outgoing Ed. Secretary Looks Ahead

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety 'Devious Lick' TikTok Trend Creates Chaos in Schools Nationwide
Shattered mirrors, missing soap dispensers, and broken toilets in school bathrooms have been linked to the "devious lick" challenge.
Simone Jasper, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)
2 min read
At the new Rising Hill Elementary School in Kansas City, Mo., gender neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area for washing and individual, locking, toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. Principal Kate Place gave a tour of the facilities on Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. The school is in the North Kansas City school district.
A gender neutral student bathroom.
Keith Myers/The Kansas City Star via AP
School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.