School Shut Downs and Anticipated Reform Result in Tense Puerto Rican Educational Climate

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Education Secretary Julia Keleher visits students at a school in Catano, Puerto Rico in March. PHOTO: NBC News

Education Secretary Julia Keleher visits students at a school in Catano, Puerto Rico in March. PHOTO: NBC News

According to NBC News, “about a quarter” of Puerto Rican schools are closing down at the end of the year as a result of the impact from Hurricane Maria, meaning that and more and more students are being displaced to different schools.

Haydee Del Valle is just one mother whose child will have to find a new school. Her 12-year-old son Nataniel Montanez came home after a day at the Escuela Mercedes Palma, which serves students in first through eighth grade and is located in Caguas, Puerto Rico. After Del Valle received a call from an NBC News reporter, he exclaimed, “they’re closing the school down.”

Del Valle’s other son, Jariel, received a letter that read, in Spanish, “We want to inform you that, unfortunately, our school is being consolidated.”

Thursday, Puerto Rico’s Department of Education officially announced that it would start the next year in August with just 828 schools, meaning that a total of 283 will be shut down.

“I don’t even know where the schools they’re being located to are,” said Del Valle with worry. “I don’t know if they’re too far away from us or if the school bus they take now will be able to take them there…This makes me sad because this is a great school.”

Since last May, the Puerto Rico school system has decreased by about 38,762 students. Puerto Rico’s Department of Education also said in a statement that these school closings will make sure that the government has the ability to give students the resources that they need after working through the drastic decrease in enrollment.

Since Hurricane Maria damaged the island so severely last September, countless families have fled the area as the economy grew worse. Families have started to give up on waiting for utilities like electricity and water to return, not to mention the repairs needed to infrastructure.

Puerto Rico’s Education Department says that around half of the schools on the island are only 60% full. Some had shut down not long after losing water and power since it did not return quickly enough, while others remained open for just half the day and used sunlight as a resource. Still, they had a sporadic water supply, and some even had water that was trucked in.

Puerto Rico has also been involved in an ongoing “struggle over education” over the reforms proposed by Gov. Ricardo Rossello. Furthermore, about 36% of private schools averaged student-teacher ratios of 10:1 or lower compared to 10% for public schools, and Education Secretary Julia Keleher is also working toward increasing charter school enrollment and reforming other aspects of the system.

Ultimately, between the impending reform efforts and ongoing school shutdowns, the educational climate in Puerto Rico may, in fact, be tenser than ever. But Del Valle, and presumably many others, have no choice but to hold out their faiths.

“Now I have to go from place to place to see what schools have space for enrollment and hope they take my kids for the new year,” said Del Valle. “The rumors about the closing had been going on, but let’s see what happens now. I hope to God that they don’t actually close the school down. I still have faith.”

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