School & District Management

Puerto Rico Faces Huge Challenges in Rebuilding, Reinventing K-12 Education

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 19, 2017 13 min read
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San Juan, Puerto Rico

The school where Edmarie Díaz teaches in the Puerto Rican town of Comerío is still standing. But so much of what she counted on in life is gone.

As Hurricane Maria approached Puerto Rico over a month ago, she knew her house, made of wood and zinc, wouldn’t last long in the storm.

“We left and took refuge in my parents’ house,” said Díaz. “When I went back, I found that the roof wasn’t there, everything was wet, there was too much damage, so I understood that I had lost everything.”

Puerto Rico’s education leaders face two inseparable challenges. They have the opportunity to recreate, and not just rebuild, the U.S. territory’s long-struggling school system. But as long as teachers like Díaz and tens of thousands of Puerto Rican students and their families go without basic necessities—a daily struggle that will take weeks or months to resolve—a positive transformation for the island’s schools might be crippled before it can even start. Or never take place at all.

The storm shattered the island’s feeble power grid and ruptured its water supply. The 1,200 or so schools serving Puerto Rico’s 350,000 public school students went dark for weeks and only a relatively small number have recently started to reopen to serve basic, community needs by providing food and water, and hosting events such as read-aloud activities.

See Also: Inside Puerto Rico’s Recovery Efforts: On-the-Ground Coverage

The Category 4 hurricane hit Puerto Rico nine months into the tenure of Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, a reform-minded former Department of Education official and business consultant whose specialties include large-scale project management. Since arriving, Keleher was driving to break up the island’s unified school district into more nimble units. Keleher also sought to upend traditional classrooms and create new learning environments that encourage entrepreneurship. Puerto Rican students’ performance has lagged far behind their counterparts on the U.S. mainland.

For the moment, Keleher’s ambition has been narrowed to a goal of having all viable schools open by Oct. 23. But her larger appetite for remaking the system in Puerto Rico has only grown in the weeks since the hurricane roared through.

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.

Today, she’s diving deep into the lessons of loss and opportunity in previous natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in 2005, bringing major upheaval to that city’s public schools. She wants schools to partner with new organizations, new initiatives like Promise Neighborhoods, and other things she says aren’t innovative in the U.S. but could transform the island’s schools.

“We totally have a chance to redefine how education happens,” she said.

‘See Rain and Start Crying’

But making the most of that chance will be difficult. To say Puerto Rico’s educational system has a clean slate on which to build anew is at once a misnomer and, in some cases, too exact.

Some schools may never reopen due to extensive damage. Others may operate without power, and therefore without things like air conditioning and lights, for weeks or months.

The island is losing population, especially sought-after professionals like teachers, so schools that physically survived the storm may still wilt.

Replacing even basic materials, from notebooks to students’ academic records, could be a struggle. So will making up lost instructional time, which for many students will be a month or more.

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

Keleher acknowledges the challenge to “navigate the pressure of returning to some sense of normalcy and providing hope and give the kids routine again, with not really being able to do something too quick.”

The elements that have provided the foundation for other high-profile efforts to revamp schools and districts, including after natural disasters, are absent from Puerto Rico. Teach For America, for example, has no presence in Puerto Rico, and a spokeswoman said the corps has no plans to expand. And Puerto Rico’s charter school law expired nearly two decades ago. The island now has no charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Finally, all such efforts must take into account the physical and emotional trauma of children and adults alike. Aida Díaz, the head of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union, has been preoccupied with finding teachers and handing off supplies to them, from rice to diapers.

“We have students that see rain and start crying,” Díaz said. “We have to work with all of them. … We have kids that are in the shelter who say, ‘I’m not going back to the school, I don’t have clothes, I don’t have shoes, I lost my books.’ ”

Teachers have been granted a hardship waiver by Keleher’s department, and they have until early January to return to work. But some teachers are leaving for places like Orlando and Miami, where job opportunities could be especially easy to find.

In fact, Florida’s Orange County school system essentially created a welcoming committee at Orlando International Airport to receive new students and, where possible, to hire new employees. Fueled by family connections in these communities, and aided by the marketability of bilingual educators, the pipeline out of Puerto Rico’s education system and into the U.S. mainland is running full.

Seeking Relief

Hurricane Maria sent Puerto Rico’s public schools reeling. But they already were having monumental struggles amid tough financial circumstances for the island as a whole.

Statistics from Puerto Rico’s Department of Education and other sources show that 77 percent of children come from homes below the poverty line, as of the 2015-16 school year. Only one out of four teachers earns over $3,000 a month. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam, more than 9 out of 10 8th graders scored at the lowest possible level. Fewer than two-thirds of students graduated from high school in Puerto Rico in 2012, the last time National Center for Education Statistics reported the figure.

The island is also treated differently than states by the federal government.

Puerto Rico had to submit a plan for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, just as states did. But it has restraints on funding for disadvantaged students, as well as those learning the English language, that states don’t face. A 2016 report to Congress indicated that the cap on funding for disadvantaged children, for example, cost the island $51.9 million in aid it would have otherwise received, or 12.7 percent.

“You haven’t always had the investment and commitment to public schools that you should,” said John B. King Jr., a former secretary of education whose mother was Puerto Rican and who taught in San Juan for a year. “That is a challenge. It is a place where there is tremendous economic disparity. You’ve got incredible poverty. And you’ve also got folks who are incredibly wealthy.”

Keleher is seeking funding as well as regulatory flexibility from various requirements, including those for special and adult education. And she wants people on the ground to help. “If [Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos] were willing to share some help in terms of experts that could come down and train our folks, that would be really helpful,” Keleher said.

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives approved a $36.5 billion aid package for Puerto Rico, as well as states impacted by other recent storms, that includes $4.9 billion loans for local communities to maintain essential services like schools.

The U.S. Department of Education is working on a school aid package to submit to the Office of Management and Budget by Oct. 25, department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said last week. She also said DeVos and acting Assistant Secretary Jason Botel “have been in close communication” with Keleher about how to help Puerto Rico’s schools recover. Hill also said the agency is studying additional flexibility for the island.

“The Department’s short-term and long-term efforts in that territory will be based on assessed needs and at the request of officials on the ground there,” she said, although she didn’t specify if the department had sent personnel to the island.

Educators Pitching In

As of the middle of last week, Puerto Rico had about 190 schools open, although the island’s education department was calling them “community centers.” Formal teaching is not the focus—instead, schools are holding read-aloud events and encouraging students to share their experiences of Hurricane Maria.

In some cases, schools are directly helping the broader recovery effort. Juanita Negrón Reyes, the director of the Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School in the mountain town of Utuado, oversaw the preparation and delivery of 500 hot meals to Judith Avivas Elementary School across town. She sat at her desk behind the locked school entrance, asking visitors to sign in just like a normal school day. Her classrooms needed to be mucked out, but a cleanup vehicle was out front, clearing away debris.

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.

Collapsed power lines and poles lined a river bank in Utuado, where over a dozen bridges had collapsed and water and food was being brought in by helicopter to the town’s baseball stadium. Despite such obstacles, Reyes is optimistic.

“We’re going to [recreate] the same school, or better. ... We can do it,” she said.

Two of those meals from Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School went to Josh and Abdiel Rivera, brothers who were trying to keep up with English and math lessons while living in a classroom at Utuado’s Judith Avivas Elementary School. The school had been converted into a shelter serving about 100 people, and their beds and piles of clothes took the place of chairs and notebooks.

As Josh and Abdiel tossed a ball around in Judith Avivas’ courtyard, their mother, Glenda Ruiz, said she had a brother living in Ohio but hadn’t been able to get in touch with him yet. While she’s still hopeful that Utuado can be rebuilt, “If we get the opportunity, we will leave” for the mainland United States for work and for her children’s education, she said.

“It’s an open question how they will manage the right size of their school system. It’s safe to assume you’ll have accelerated migration over the next three to six months,” said King, the former education secretary said.

Katrina and Maria

Paul Pastorek, the superintendent of Louisiana’s schools from 2007 to 2011, looked at what Puerto Rico’s educational system faces and weighed it against the challenges faced by New Orleans’ schools after Hurricane Katrina. He reached this conclusion: “This problem is many times more difficult than the Katrina problem.”

That’s in part because, in Pastorek’s view, Puerto Rico must act faster to piece together a school system that is much larger than New Orleans’ was—the Big Easy had about 65,000 students before Katrina hit. And Puerto Rico schools will attempt to recover with “a large degree of risk that it won’t get the right attention because it doesn’t enjoy the same status as a mainland state.” New Orleans-area residents weren’t living on an island; they could leave for cities like Houston and Atlanta and not come back for some time, he noted.

Back in 2005, Congress devoted $1.4 billion to helping schools and students recover from Katrina. That included $750 million in so-called “restart aid.” Keleher, in fact, cited that aid package in her wish-list for Puerto Rican schools. For New Orleans, that money could be used to pay for new textbooks, to replace some technology, to rent trailers to use as temporary educational spaces, and to redevelop curriculum. But it didn’t cover other costs, including major renovations and rebuilding.

New Orleans, which had roughly a tenth of the number of schools before Katrina hit as Puerto Rico did before Maria, had to wrestle with complex requirements surrounding federal aid, all while stitching together the “bare bones” of an educational system in the first year after the 2005 storm, Pastorek recalled. The district spent a lot on stipends to attract teachers, but that approach may not have the same potency in Puerto Rico. And in contrast to the hardship waiver Puerto Rico’s teachers have received, New Orleans ended up firing its previous teachers as part of the district’s rebuilding process.

“If they have to face the same challenges we did, it is going to be a difficult and a long slog through no fault of their own,” Pastorek said. “There are few options that are easy, automatic, and elegantly right.”

An Attraction to Rebuilding?

Puerto Ricans need to decide for themselves the best options for revamping their schools, Pastorek said. But he said the system should be open to a range of options, including expanded charters, private school vouchers, and online learning, to help the system get back on its feet. There might be a bigger practical challenge for Puerto Rico’s schools, however, he said.

“Even if an NGO [non-governmental organization] or nonprofit wanted to help, how do you mobilize arms and legs to go to Puerto Rico to help when it is not close?” Pastorek said. “People will ask, ‘Will I be able to live and do work there when there’s such devastation there?’”

Downed power lines are a common sight in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, since Hurricane Maria tore through the coastal city on Sept. 20.

There are already efforts afoot to broaden options for Puerto Rico’s students. Florida Gov. Rick Scott recently opened up 20,000 slots in his state’s virtual school to help with Puerto Rican students’ education.

That doesn’t do much of anything for students on the island without the internet. But Keleher said that’s not a deal-breaker. She’s looking for innovation anywhere she can so she can help it grow.

“Whether I can get online or not, I take it. Why? Because I can say, if Florida virtual schools is giving me this, then I can go to Claro [a cellular provider in the Caribbean and the Americas] and AT&T and say, ‘Can you guys help me get online? What options do I have?’” Keleher said. “As soon as that first resource comes, you can start to line up everything else you need.”

Closer to the classroom, Keleher is also trying to shift schools toward a project-based learning model. For example, they could be assigned to track and then report on the damage and recovery efforts in their local communities. In part, such an approach could ease the academic burden on teachers struggling to rebuild their classrooms. But for Keleher, it would also teach students to “engage their world as if it were a laboratory.”

“My paradigm was, that if you wanted to get an education, you had to go to a room, sit at a desk, and the person stands in front of you,” she said. “Now I get to change that.”

‘We Can Handle Our Schools’

Even with the widespread problems facing Puerto Rico’s schools, imposing centralized solutions will be problematic because they could ignore the very disparate needs of individual schools and communities, said Katherine Miranda, the managing director of education programs at the Flamboyan Foundation, which works to improve teacher preparation and early literacy in Puerto Rico’s schools.

“The students that are in the most precarious positions and whose schools have suffered the most will be the least able to have access to other options,” Miranda said.

Both Keleher and Aida Díaz, the head of the teachers’ union, said they have a good working relationship. But that partnership might be tested.

Díaz praised Keleher’s efforts to give local administrators more power, and she said teachers are willing to be more flexible when it comes to the school calendar. But Díaz also cautioned that in spite of the prospect of mass migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland and the system’s historical struggles, what Puerto Rican schools need right now is money.

“I’m concerned because every time something like this [happens] in the country, there are some people interested in changing what the good system has been doing,” Díaz said. “We can handle our schools. We are going to continue defending public schools. We don’t want a new idea of schools controlled by people who are not teachers, who are not educators.”

Díaz said she “doesn’t trust” charter schools. And she questioned any real incentive for the private sector to get heavily involved in the island’s schools.

Whatever solutions are chosen by K-12 leaders, those involved in the school system make it clear that their resolve, whether it involves using machetes to clear school grounds or bringing new partners and programs to schools, shouldn’t be in question.

“There’s a tremendous amount of commitment on the part of teachers, and school directors, and the school community, to come together and rebuild,” Miranda said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 25, 2017 edition of Education Week as Education Leaders in Puerto Rico Look To Rebuild, Reinvent Schools


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