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In Puerto Rico, the public pushes for more say in school reform

The government recently announced the closure of 283 schools and a new pilot plan for charter schools and vouchers. Meanwhile, education nonprofits, parent-teacher associations, and teachers’ union members are seeking solutions of their own.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Students in seventh and eighth grades play on the covered court at the Escuela Rafael Hernández in March in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. The rural school is slated for closure this summer. Puerto Rico is enacting school reforms that aim to consolidate schools and add pilot charter schools and vouchers.

It’s 9:15 am on a recent Thursday, and Raul Rosario Ramos’ class of second-grade students is practically glued to the blackboard. Mr. Rosario likes to think he makes mathematics fun, but the kids are scooched up close for another reason: the room is so dark it’s hard to see the lesson.

“When it rains like this, we have to adjust,” Rosario says. His students at the Escuela Rafael Hernández have been rearranging their desks depending on the weather and time of day ever since they came back to class in November following hurricane Maria. Half the school is still without electricity and almost one in three students didn’t return to school following the storm.

But, in early April, teachers and students learned that the lengthy power outage is no longer their biggest challenge. The school was listed as one of 283 public schools slated to close at the end of the academic year.

“The parents are organizing to fight the closure,” says social studies teacher Luis Rios Rivera. It’s the third time the school has been threatened with closure in two years, teachers say – most recently, the week following Maria. “They tried to use the storm as an excuse, but we fought them. They’re trying to use the number of students as a reason, but we’ll keep fighting because we’re the only school in the area,” he says. “It’s a pity, but we’ll see if God agrees.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Second-grade students attend class in the dark at the Escuela Rafael Hernández on March 15, 2018 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s public school system is in need of an overhaul. That’s one point on which teachers and government officials can agree.

Educational performance has lagged compared to other US districts for decades, with Puerto Rico ranking dead last in fourth-grade and eighth-grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests in 2017. And the overwhelming economic crisis that has rocked the island for the past 11 years has led to austerity measures, which have affected education budgets and accelerated an exodus of families moving their children to the mainland US.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria exacerbated the already problematic situation, pushing another estimated 27,000 students out of the Puerto Rican schools between August 2017 and January 2018.  

What’s contested here is what a revamped public school system should look like. In late March, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a bill that will begin a trial implementation of a charter school system. Starting next school year, 10 percent of public schools will become charter programs, and vouchers will be available to 3 percent of students on the island to use in private schools. A teachers’ union quickly responded by suing the island’s department of education over the constitutionality of using public funds for private, or what they describe as privately administered, schools. 

While the government moves forward with its plans, education nonprofits, parent-teacher associations, and teachers’ union members are seeking solutions of their own. From improved teacher trainings to putting forth models with proven track records here, to teaming up with parents and community members to keep kids in local schools – Puerto Ricans are pushing for a larger role in the education-reform conversation. 

'Reform provides options' 

Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education Julia Keleher strides into a vast conference room on a recent afternoon and sits at the head of a long table surrounded by graphs and charts depicting the school system’s challenges.

Public school teachers recently received their first raise in 10 years (about $1,500), and average salaries are about 28 percent lower than in the poorest-paid public school districts in the mainland US, she says, citing National Center for Education Statistics. Student achievement lags, resources are poorly allocated, and building maintenance has been ignored for too long, she argues. Student enrollment has fallen by 45 percent since 2004.

“The education reform provides options to students and families, options that don’t exist in a historically failing system,” Ms. Keleher says, referring to the move toward charter and voucher options.

“Kids that graduate unprepared to enter the workforce, unprepared to go to college … it’s a civil rights issue,” she says. She’s pushing to close schools with underenrollment and move teachers to other schools where they’re needed more, thus helping her department to better allocate resources. The option to choose a charter over a poorly performing school, she says, "would allow socioeconomic mobility.” 

It’s a compelling argument, but she’s won over few educators and families here. The common refrain on the island is that the department of education is trying to privatize the school system, putting big corporations and the bottom line ahead of the well-being of students. 

“They think that because our island is vulnerable, because it doesn’t have electricity, that we’re going to let them privatize our schools and fire our teachers,” said Mercedes Martinez, the president of the Federation of Teachers of Puerto Rico, one of two teachers’ unions here, at a protest in February.

When asked how she explains to teachers and families how her solutions will improve education, Keleher taps on a giant print-out of a bar graph, raises her eyebrows, and says, “with this.” The graph requires reading a key and footnotes to glean its significance on spending allocations.

The hard numbers represent the problems that need fixing here, but they don’t speak to the central concerns of educators – like the fear of losing their jobs – or the community panic around whether families will need to uproot in order to keep their kids educated if their neighborhood school shutters.

“I’m very worried,” says Ana Maria Garcia Blanco, director of Instituto Nueva Escuela, a nonprofit focused on spreading the Montessori model to public schools on the island.

“I don’t think there has been enough conversation about the pros and cons [of charter schools]. There’s not enough research on what happens to a community when a charter school comes in,” Dr. Garcia says. She first introduced a Montessori model in the public school system here in the early 1990s.

Charter schools are controversial across the US, with proponents espousing their freedom to innovate and critics calling them unaccountable. 

“This is a very difficult moment. We’re very tired after the hurricanes. We are living days within days,” says Garcia. “Suddenly Puerto Ricans are more poor than we were in September. In the midst of all the trauma, to be questioning our schools has been very hard.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Teacher Luis Rios Rivera poses for a photo at the Escuela Rafael Hernández on March 15, 2018 in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. In April, the government announced it plans to close the school. "They’re trying to use the number of students as a reason, but we’ll keep fighting because we’re the only school in the area," says Mr. Rios.

'Unity around our school'

Less than a week after hurricane Maria – once loved ones were accounted for and neighbors had started to lug away the fallen trees blocking the narrow, curving mountain roads here – students, families and staff started showing up at the Escuela Rafael Hernández to clean up the campus of two-story concrete buildings serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. 

By the end of that week, Mr. Rios, the social studies teacher, says the department of education informed them the school would be shut down. The community ignored the decree, with teachers arriving to give half-day classes despite the lack of electricity, and a fourth-grade student going on the radio to plead to keep his school open. 

“There’s a lot of unity around our school,” says Evelyn Ortiz, whose 16-year-old daughter with special needs is studying here. “We’re small in size but this school is our [community’s] heart.” The school lost nearly 50 students following Maria, creating a teacher-student ratio of roughly 1:6 – more attention for students, but an inefficient use of resources in the eyes of the education department. 

“We have a different vision from the government, but we’re not being heard,” Ms. Ortiz says. She fears her daughter won’t be accepted at a charter school due to her learning disabilities and that they’ll have to move as a result. Ortiz and other parents say they will do whatever it takes to keep this school up and running.

“Culturally our public schools are very important for our identity, and historically in the organization of our communities,” says Garcia.

Rios says no officials have come to talk to him or the other teachers following the recent announcement that 283 out of about 1,100 schools would be closed this summer. There are concerns over job retention and retirement benefits, despite Keleher announcing there would be no layoffs.

“No one has told us anything,” Rios says.

If the school indeed shuts down, parents say their kids will be sent to the nearby town of Bayamón. It’s only about 5 miles away, but given the mountainous terrain, it is a complicated, time-consuming commute.

“There is a very limited system for bussing for students on the island,” says Kristin Ehrgood, president of the Flamboyan Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to improve educational outcomes for children in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. “The most vulnerable communities, in my opinion, are the rural communities. Where, if you close the school, there are implications around how families get kids to the new school. Remember, jobs are scarcer following the storm and paying for gas, or for a car, will be challenging.”

Just outside of San Juan, the capital, third-grade teacher Juveisie De Leon Rosario – unsatisfied with trainings offered by the government – found a Flamboyan Foundation reading comprehension training while looking online and submitted an application for her school, Angel Ramos Elementary. It’s a pilot program, but already the foundation has plans to expand its work next year.

"The university prepares you academically, but you don't talk about how to apply the lessons," says Yenni Martinez, a first-grade teacher who says she'd like to see more discussion around the reforms focusing on effective teacher trainings.

Ms. De Leon says she’s in the minority, but thinks the reform could be good for Puerto Rico. “It will be uncomfortable, it will be challenging,” she says, acknowledging she’s still unclear on exactly what the reform will consist of. 

“Our education system is struggling,” she says. “At this point, I’m hopeful any change will be good.”

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