School & District Management

Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Steps Down After Divisive Tenure

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 09, 2019 4 min read
Julia Keleher’s tenure as head of Puerto Rico’s islandwide school system included overseeing its recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, as well as controversies over school closures and school choice.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher stepped down last week as the island’s top K-12 official—and just two days later gave up a new post where she was to be a paid adviser at the island’s education department.

The new education secretary for Puerto Rico on an interim basis is Eleuterio Álamo, who most recently oversaw the Puerto Rico education department’s San Juan regional office. He was named by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who had also picked Keleher as education secretary for the U.S. territory, a role she took on in January 2017.

Álamo appealed to Puerto Rico’s leadership because of his experience dealing with schools in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and its largest city, and the complexity that work entails. Álamo said he was looking forward to continuing ongoing education reforms, according to the Associated Press.

After stepping down April 2, Keleher initially assumed the role of adviser for the department she previously led. She was to focus on the leadership transition and ongoing policy changes. Her $250,000 salary for that job was to have been paid by the island’s Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority—her salary as secretary had also been paid by that agency.

But she confirmed the end of her brand-new job in a text message on April 4, the same day that news reports from the island referred to a legislative inquiry into Keleher’s conduct while in office.

Last year, Keleher said she envisioned staying on as secretary for several more years.

“We’ve finished phase one. Phase two, the running of this, requires a different leader,” Keleher said in an interview last week of the government’s plan to revamp schools. “I’m more of a change agent. Now, what we need is someone to hold the course.”

Polarizing Figure

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017, Keleher and other educators were confronted with a humanitarian crisis that crippled the island for months and presented a slew of dire problems for its public school system, which educated roughly 350,000 students before the storm and had been struggling academically and financially for years.

Keleher won praise from some quarters for her determination to revamp K-12. She focused on teachers’ professional development, getting more and better materials to classrooms, and forging closer connections between schools and the private sector.

Yet other policies she successfully pursued, such as a new law allowing charter schools and vouchers, as well as the closure of hundreds of schools on the heels of declining enrollment, drew her into frequent conflict with the island’s teachers’ unions. At a San Juan rally last summer in opposition to her record, protesters shouted, “Julia go home!” Keleher is not Puerto Rican.

Aida Díaz, the president of Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (the island’s teachers’ union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers), told the Associated Press that she is not surprised by Keleher’s resignation. “She has created chaos,” Díaz said.

New Role

Keleher minimized her well-publicized friction with the union, saying that aside from school choice and school closures, she didn’t believe she had serious conflict with the labor group. She highlighted a recent announcement that she plans to institute a pay raise for teachers, for example.

However, those two major fights went to court, as the union sought in vain to stop both school closures and the law permitting charters and vouchers—one charter is open this school year in Puerto Rico, and two more are slated to start next year. The voucher program is also slated to start in the 2019-20 school year. And AFT President Randi Weingarten recently highlighted the push to oppose the spread of charters in Arecibo, west of San Juan.

There’s a ream of statistics that Keleher and her team have showcased to demonstrate the island’s progress during her two-year tenure. They include:

• Delivering 1.2 million textbooks and “digital resources” to classrooms covering core subjects;

• Increasing the number of nurses in schools from 32 to 430, with each nurse getting training in screening for trauma;

• Upgrading internet bandwidth at schools; and

• Distributing 150,000 laptops and tablets to schools.

One of the biggest remaining problems for the island’s public schools is their state of repair. In January, Keleher said it would ultimately cost $11 billion to bring damaged and deteriorating schools up to the necessary building standards.

“The school buildings are a real challenge,” Keleher said. “Not having a beautiful, modern, healthy, safe, engaging learning environment—that’s going to be a longer road.”

In the short term, Keleher said whether test scores rise is an important barometer for improving schools. Over the longer term, she wants to see greater connections develop between schools and the island’s business community.

Asked if she would have done anything differently if given a do over, Keleher responded, “I don’t have regrets. I think I learned a lot and I grew a lot as a person. If I had to do it all over again, I think I would like to take the time to create stronger, closer connections with each of the communities and understand their needs.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2019 edition of Education Week as Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Steps Down After Divisive Tenure

Events

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.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Making Technology Work Better in Schools
Join experts for a look at the steps schools are taking (or should take) to improve the use of technology in schools.
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.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls

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 & District Management 'It Has to Be a Priority': Why Schools Can't Ignore the Climate Crisis
Schools have a part to play in combating climate change, but they don't always know how.
16 min read
Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)
School & District Management Some Districts Return to Mask Mandates as COVID Cases Spike
Mask requirements remain the exception nationally and still sensitive in places that have reimposed them.
4 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
Chalk drawings from last August remind students to wear masks as they arrive at school.
Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP
School & District Management Women Get Overlooked for the Superintendent's Job. How That Can Change
Three female superintendents spell out concrete solutions from their own experience.
4 min read
Susana Cordova, former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Susana Cordova is deputy superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and former superintendent for Denver Public Schools.
Allison V. Smith for Education Week
School & District Management Opinion You Can't Change Schools Without Changing Yourself First
Education leaders have been under too much stress keeping up with day-to-day crises to make the sweeping changes schools really need.
Renee Owen
5 min read
conceptual illustration of a paper boat transforming into an origami bird before falling off a cliff
wildpixel/iStock/Getty