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Top Federal Adviser on Puerto Rico’s Schools Declares: ‘We Have to Build Trust’

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 23, 2021 4 min read
Martin G. Brumbaugh School kindergarten teacher Nydsy Santiago teaches her students under a gazebo at a municipal athletic park in Santa Isabel, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 4, 2021.
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Maintain proper oversight over spending. Upgrade school infrastructure. And follow through on your plan for COVID-19 relief money.

Those are three key areas of Puerto Rico’ public schools the U.S. Department of Education will be watching to ensure that students, teachers, and other educators get better support, said Chris Soto, the head of a federal team providing technical assistance and support for the U.S. territory’s public schools.

In an interview with Education Week, Soto, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, also acknowledged that he’s far from the first person to try to convince Puerto Rico’s educators and others in schools there that Cardona and others will help lead the island’s schools in a fundamentally new direction.

“They’ve heard this before, that federal help is on the way,” said Soto, who recently visited the island. “We have to build trust.”

A commitment from the top

When he took over the Education Department, Cardona—who has Puerto Rican heritage—declared that the Biden administration would usher in a “new day” for Puerto Rico’s education system. The U.S. territory’s schools were battered by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which severely disrupted life for educators and families, and prompted a controversial decision to permanently close hundreds of school buildings.

The island-wide school system also received a steady stream of negative attention recently, due to the arrest of its former education secretary and ongoing concerns about how the island’s education department manages federal funding, among other things.

Last March, federal officials eased Trump administration restrictions and released nearly $1 billion in education funding to Puerto Rico. In September, the Education Department announced a new federal team that would focus specifically on Puerto Rican education. In mid-November, the department approved the territory’s American Rescue Plan blueprint, and in doing so released $990 million for its K-12 system out of the $3 billion for Puerto Rico’s schools included in the COVID relief package signed by President Joe Biden last March.

Among other things, Puerto Rico’s plan calls for the University of Puerto Rico to help with tutoring efforts to address lost instructional time; by providing stipends for teachers and paying for more support staff to support teachers; and by working with specialized contractors to replace outdated HVAC systems to improve air quality in schools.

That last part might address a situation that became especially urgent after Hurricane Maria. But these and other efforts will have to contend with a fundamental, long-term problem facing Puerto Rico’s schools: Since the storm struck in September 2017, enrollment in the island’s public schools has plunged from about 350,000 to 260,000 this school year, a decline of 26 percent, although this enrollment tends to fluctuate during the school year as students travel back and forth from the U.S. mainland. (Puerto Rico’s population also declined significantly over roughly the past decade.)

And there are also longstanding concerns about the academic performance of students in the island’s public schools.

Challenges similar to those on the mainland

After his visit with educators, Education Department officials, and others in Puerto Rico as part of the Education Department’s task force, Soto said he is focused on issues that are also challenging right now for U.S. mainland schools: ensuring that student have access to appropriate in-person instruction, school transportation, and special education services. (A large share of students receive special education services, which have been the subject of scrutiny and criticism recently.)

At the same time, Soto praised the island for vaccinating nearly all teachers and students following a mandate announced by Puerto Rico, saying that it could serve as a role model for schools elsewhere. In Puerto Rico, 98 percent of school staff are vaccinated.

In conversations with educators, Soto said he also stressed that the amount of COVID aid and the flexibility schools have in using it should open up a lot of opportunities to improve their work. He also said bluntly that teachers in Puerto Rico should be paid more, although he said the limited duration of COVID relief could complicate that issue.

“They are probably the most dedicated teachers that I’ve ever had the pleasure to interact with,” Soto said. “They also need to feel supported.”

More broadly, Soto is encouraging the K-12 system to build stronger connections with after-school programs, the island’s higher education system, and nonprofit organizations. In addition, Soto and his team are trying to help the island’s public schools match labor market needs in the business community.

Asked if Hurricane Maria, ex-Secretary of Education Julia Keleher’s arrest, and other issues from the last few years still affect what he and others are trying to do, Soto responded: “Does it cloud the work? Absolutely.”

Yet he also praised Law 85, which former Gov. Ricardo Rossello signed in 2018 that was backed by Keleher and which implemented fundamental changes to the island’s K-12 system. Among other things, Soto highlighted how the law has created more autonomy for principals and empowered regional education officials. That law also instituted private school vouchers and charter schools in Puerto Rico.

With a third-party fiduciary agent in place to oversee federal education funding for Puerto Rico, Soto said he’s confident that he and his team will provide a balance of support and measurement-based accountability “to make sure that we’re making progress.”

“This is not just talk. We’re actually committed to the island,” Soto

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