Puerto Rico’s Education Crisis

Sofie Hecht

13-year-old Leydi climbs up the steps to get onto the slide, and when she slides down, she is smiling the whole way. Her mother, Jinnette Morales Díaz, is watching as Leydi plays in the playground, but not too vigilantly because they have been to this park many times and Leydi knows her way around. “My daughter receives services 12 months of the year. Because of the condition she has, one month without her therapies, and she’s going to have a regression where she loses everything she’s learned and all that she has benefited from during this process,” Jinnette describes. She is an activist in the movement to keep schools in Puerto Rico open, and a facilitator of special education resources between families and schools for children with a variety of learning and functioning challenges. Leydi goes to school in the San Juan region, and her school will be a “Receptor School” for a nearby school’s students who are facing the Department of Education’s May 2018 decision to close 283 schools across the island before the 2018-19 academic year. Jinnette’s nervousness about how this will affect her daughter’s education comes after Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact on the island last October, which caused many families to seek shelter in nearby schools. Leydi’s school was one of these shelters, putting her and her 400 classmates out of school for 2 months. During this period, Leydi was sad and aggressive, a natural response to a drastically different routine and a prolonged period without the learning and educational support she had been used to. “There were already schools closed. I never understood why they didn’t use the schools that were already closed [as shelters] so that it didn’t affect the services for these kids. And they moved us to one school, as if we were furniture. You move it here, and then over there,” Jinnette expressed with frustration.

“Here kids are not human beings. To this administration, kids are not human beings. Education is not a right; it is a business” – Jinnette Morales Díaz

The Secretary of Education Julia Keleher announced the school closings in May without advising schools or families beforehand and citing no specific reasoning for choosing certain schools over others to close. This is not the first time there have been massive school closings on the island. Before the 2017-2018 academic year, 167 public schools closed to help alleviate the island’s $123 billion owed in debt and pensions and consolidate students because of low enrollment. This year, mobilization against the 283 schools added to the list of closing schools has intensified, especially because many of the schools that closed offered special education services to the over 140,000 students in Puerto Rico enrolled in a special education program, about 40% of the total number of students in Puerto Rico.

Another mother, Sandy Baez, described the warm environment of the 200-student school her son with autism goes to, La Escuela Salvador Rodruiguez. When, on the first day of school, he hid under the table in fear and wouldn’t come out for some time, teachers were able to comfort him and draw him out. Sandy expressed immense gratitude for how the community of this school has been so nurturing and supportive of him. Over the summer, she was frustrated and scared, having no idea how her son would handle the drastic changes the new school year would bring. “I feel destroyed, but with hope,” she expressed, because she spent a large part of her summer going to various meetings and protests so that their school would remain open. Unfortunately, the school was indeed closed, leaving their countryside town in Caguas without a nearby elementary school.

Schools in Puerto Rico have increasingly low matriculation rates, so the school closings were part of a “consolidation” effort to more efficiently use school space, but the DOE’s specific choices for school closings are what are being put into question. Where there is a fully visible patio in her kids’ school yard where kids can play freely, there is a parking lot in the new school, another mother Jennifer Calder explained. Calder has 3 kids, 2 of which went to Aurelio Perez Martinez before it closed in August, and a 3rd who she was hoping to enroll when he was old enough. The structure of the new school—no ramps, no preschool, tree roots and parking lots where kids are supposed to play—are of concern to Calder, and many. Jayson Grau finished 2nd grade at Aurelio Perez Martinez after having to repeat first grade, first at one school, then at Aurelio. His mom was so happy when they found Aurelio and has been worried that the new school does not have the adequate resources he needs to focus and learn. In May, the family learned that there would be more than 25 students in each classroom at the new school. Wanda, Jayson’s grandmother, asked: “What kid can learn with 30 kids in the classroom?”

At a June 11th hearing in the Judicial Courts of the town of Arecibo, a judge ruled to halt the school closings in Arecibo and Morovis following a day-long court session of parent and teacher testimonies and a defense by the Department of Education about their decision to close schools. The hearing was the first to challenge the Department’s reasoning and allow parents and teachers the opportunity to speak about why their schools should remain open. The final decision indicated that the Department did not have adequate reasons to close the specific schools in question. While the judge’s decision delayed the closing of 9 schools in this region, and at first led to further investigation into the Department of Education’s reasoning for closing schools in other regions, students were still relocated to new schools by the start of the new school year following the Department’s original plan for school closings. The situation remains “chaos” and “madness,” according to Leydi’s mother Jinnette. Students are packed into schools with fewer teachers, students of special education are lacking the vital services they need to learn, families and teachers are leaving Puerto Rico for better work and education on the mainland, and Keleher has made no effort to provide additional support to these students in their home or school lives.