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Puerto Rico’s school system braces for change: closures and charters

Second grade teacher Pierette Hidalgo leads students and parents in a chant during a school closing protest at Escuela Elemental John F. Kennedy in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico on April 17, 2018. The school is one of 283 schools slated to be close on the island following population declines. Peter Balonon-Rosen/Marketplace

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The Puerto Rican education system is in the middle of a massive reorganization. The island’s government recently announced they’re planning on closing over 280 public schools, combining resources, and introducing charter schools and private school vouchers. The changes to the school system were promoted in part by damage from Hurricane Maria. But the island’s schools had been struggling long before the hurricane hit.

At 7:45 a.m., teachers, parents and students gather outside of Escuela Elemental John F. Kennedy in Toa Baja, about 15 miles outside of San Juan. And it’s loud.

“Open, open, I want a school that’s open,” they chant in Spanish.

Their school is one of roughly one third of the island’s schools slated to close this summer. Enrollment has dropped across Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. The education department says it’s down by 38,000 students since May.

Ouria Vargas’ nine-year-old daughter Gabriella attends the school where she receives special education services.

“If they do close it, the school that’s closest to me is more or less 30 minutes way,” Vargas said, in Spanish. “It would be very difficult, because even though I have transportation, it would really affect us.”

The island’s government wants to consolidate schools, some because of declining enrollment and some due to lower test scores or buildings in bad shape. Teachers’ unions are fighting both the closures and a plan from the governor that would allow charter school and private school voucher programs starting in 2019.

Online records show John F. Kennedy’s test scores need work. Enrollment has declined in the past few years as the island suffered its debt crisis. Teachers argue the numbers are bouncing back, even as they note that the principal left for the mainland after Hurricane Maria.

Second grade teacher Pierette Hidalgo teaches students about important historical sites in Puerto Rico in her classroom at Escuela Elemental John F. Kennedy.

Inside, Pierette Hidalgo’s second grade classroom is decorated with drawings of Spider-Man. Fifteen students sit in little groups, learning about important historical sites in Puerto Rico. But a sign in the classroom underscores how tense things are right now. It reads: Education is not for sale. 

Up front, on the white board, it says: Julia Keleher wants to close my school.

Keleher, Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, worked as a consultant to Puerto Rico’s schools for about a decade. She took on the secretary job last year and says the closure plan could save the school system $150 million. But it’s made things tense.

“People are being confronted with the reality that has been hidden or sort of brushed over for the last ten to fifteen years. The debt crisis and $73 billion didn’t just pop up, right?” Keleher said. “So someone coming in to do the things and being honest and transparent about the why and making those tough decisions doesn’t make it hurt any less.”

It comes down to stretching out the dollars that are available, Keleher said. 

“We haven’t bought books in probably 8 years, my kids don’t have access to technology,” Keleher said. “So, in order to be able to make that kind of investment and purchase the materials they need and to be able to pay teachers a better salary — this adjustment is to be able to serve other purposes. It’s not just consolidating for the sake of consolidating.”

Escuela Elemental John F. Kennedy in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.

In the middle of all of this are the kids. Many went through the storm, or lost homes. John F. Kennedy’s social worker, Maria de Lourdes Torres says they’re already traumatized and losing the school could mean losing some semblance of consistency in their lives.

“The government isn’t visualizing this specific experience of the children, the needs of the children,” de Lourdes Torres said, in Spanish. “A loss, another loss — these are a lot of losses at one times. They’re mourning and the kids need to recover.”

De Lourdes Torres herself has lost her voice over stress about what will happen next. But that’s not on her mind.

“I mean, our kids lost everything,” she said.

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