School & District Management

Puerto Rican Schools Offer Lifeline in Devastated Communities

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 09, 2017 2 min read
Norberto Collazo maneuvers his horse on a highway near a washed-out bridge in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
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Utuado, Puerto Rico

Principal Juanita Negrón Reyes sits at her desk at Utuado’s Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School, surrounded by slips of paper and folders, asking visitors to sign in.

Except that there are no students, no classes, and no teachers at the school in the middle of Puerto Rico’s mountains where she is the director. The courtyard is silent, the gate is locked, the fence in front has fallen down. And the metal roof over the basketball court has been shredded.

Near the school, which normally has 350 K-8 students, military helicopters swoop down and then up overhead, leaving behind pallets of water and boxes of food for Utuado’s residents battered by Hurricane Maria last month.

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

Residents stand in a line in thick humidity at the Ramon Luis Cabanas baseball stadium to receive those necessities. Heavy rain is on the way. Seventeen bridges in the town are gone.

Jeremy Vasquez holds his nephew Jamdry Salsado, 2, as he waits in line for water at Ramon Luis Cabanas baseball stadium in the San Jose neighborhood of Utuado, Puerto Rico.

Inside Reyes’ school, the cafeteria workers cook, assemble, and box up 500 meals that include corn, mashed potatoes, and apple sauce. Police show up to help carry them off.

Juanita Negrón Reyes, principal of the Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School in Utuado, Puerto Rico, works on prepping food that will be distributed to residents of the hurricane-ravaged town.

Reyes oversees the operation with forceful but engaging efficiency, chattering with workers, pitching in herself. Police come in to help as well. There’s no light in the lunchroom except for what comes through the windows. And there’s no running water, a prerequisite for Puerto Rican schools to re-open after Hurricane Maria.

Principal Juanita Negrón Reyes has worked at the Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School since Sept. 23, just three days after the hurricane hit Utuado, Puerto Rico.

The meals’ destination? Another Utuado school, Judith Avivas Elementary School, which those bearing the meals must reach by crossing a swollen river over a surviving bridge. At Judith Avivas, 103 people are using the school as a shelter, many of them children. Their homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the storm. Negron makes sure the meals are delivered herself.

Reyes has been at her desk in her school since Sept. 23, just three days after the hurricane hit. She doesn’t know when her school will reopen. But her focus now is on serving others, and using schools to achieve that aim, however possible.

“I believe that we are working so hard, and with a lot of love, to stand up in Utuado and Puerto Rico,” Reyes said through an interpreter. “I have a very strong desire to work and serve other people.”

A construction vehicle arrives and starts clearing out brush from in front of Bernardo Gonzalez Colon. The principal is waiting on a private company to fix both the fence and the basketball court. And still-wet classrooms must be dried out.

Located in the middle of Puerto Rico’s mountains, Utuado, Puerto Rico, was devastated by Hurricane Maria last month.

Some books survived. Many teachers showed up to help clean up the school in other ways, including some who normally work at other schools.

“We want to receive the students and continue the school year,” Reyes said. “We’re going to [recreate] the same school, or better. We just need motivation, tolerance, respect, care. We can do it.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week

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