School Climate & Safety

‘This Is My Island. My Students Need Me.’

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 09, 2017 2 min read

Arecibo, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s national teacher of the year from a decade ago isn’t going anywhere.

Isabel Rodriguez Santos has been teaching for 22 years. Since Hurricane Maria, the school where she teaches marketing and business administration, Dr. Maria Cadilla High School in this coastal city about 50 miles west of San Juan, hasn’t held classes.

But that doesn’t mean it’s been quiet. Even though at least five teachers at the school have lost their homes, the school’s entire teaching staff has showed up since the storm to clear trees, clean out the interior, and try to prepare the school for opening on Oct. 23.

Isabel Rodriguez Santos, right, a marketing and business administration teacher at Dr. Maria Cadilla High School in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, stands with her daughter, Valeria Ramis de Ayreflor, age 14. Rodriguez Santos hopes that her school can re-open later this month once running water is re-established.

“All of them presented themselves at the school and said, ‘What can we do? Let’s go to work,’” Rodriguez Santos said.

Lost Learning Time

If Dr. Maria Cadillo High School has running water, it can welcome students, even without lights, air conditioning, the internet, and elevators. Many of the school’s roughly 590 students may not return, while new students may show up whose previous schools remain shuttered.

Those and other challenges are daunting. But Rodriquez Santos still hopes that children, parents, and teachers stay in Puerto Rico and continue to be a part of the school community.

“I’m very sad because there are more people leaving Puerto Rico,” said Rodriguez Santos, though she says she still respects those deciding to depart permanently. “We need those people here. We need those hands, those professionals, here. I understand that it’s hard. ... I have relatives in the U.S. who call and say, ‘Come on, you got a profession, you speak English, you’ve got to move here.’ I say no. This is my island. My students need me.”

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

Rodriguez Santos and other educators know that their students will need a longer school year to accommodate the days, weeks, and perhaps months of instructional time that they will miss. She and others at Dr. Maria Cadillo are still finalizing their plans to extend the school year into June, work on weekends, extend the school day itself, or some combination of those options.

Looking Ahead

They’ll also work quickly to survey students about their interests and needs. And Puerto Rico’s Department of Education has communicated to teachers that with all the difficulties teachers will face, they can shift to focusing much more on project-based learning.

Mariano Ramis de Ayreflor, 18, uses a downed palm tree as a bridge over a crevasse in his yard after running an extension cord to his neighbor so they can share in electricity from his family's generator in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

And students returning to Rodriguez Santos’ school will catch at least one break: They won’t have to wear their normal school uniforms. Without air conditioning, those uniforms would be hard to bear.

“I understand that the students are very anxious to go to school. People need to go out of their houses and feel that everything is going to be all right and that we’re going to start over again,” Rodriguez Santos said. “So we make the sacrifice.”

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

The teaching veteran also knows that her school is relatively lucky. Standing in front of Judith Avivas Elementary School, about 45 minutes away from her home in the mountain village of Utuado, Rodriguez Santos sees where the river burst its banks and flooded all the way up to the edge of the school’s parking lot. The school is now serving as a shelter for 103 individuals, including many students.

Rodriguez Santos hopes that if there is a next time, schools are better prepared for an imminent hurricane and can give their students academic work to study, even though there’s no stopping a force like Hurricane Maria.

“This is a great lesson,” Rodriguez Santos said.

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

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