In Post-Hurricane Maria, Teachers in Puerto Rico Lead Where the Government Fails
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In Post-Hurricane Maria, Teachers in Puerto Rico Lead Where the Government Fails

Puerto Rico's educators need help in their fight to keep schools open and moving.

Now four full months after Hurricane Maria, parts of Puerto Rico are slowly starting to show a sense of normalcy. There are some lit streets, restaurants and businesses starting to open, and tourists shopping. A quick drive away from the city center, however, and cars cautiously cross intersections with no traffic lights, homes are missing roofs or are covered in tarp. Store fronts remain shuttered, and there are mountains of cleared debris piled in backyards and on the sides of highways. Among these images of destruction and renewal are children in colorful uniforms dutifully going to school.


The Puerto Rico school system has been struggling for some time even before the storms, suffering from major cuts due to the fiscal crisis, dwindling matriculation, and low proficiency scores. There was a plan set in place to reform the education system by the Department of Education in Puerto Rico. “We are transforming the system, focused on academics versus operations, trying to integrate all the different verticals so as to address the needs of the students,” Maria Christian, Chief Academic Officer, told VICE Impact. These reform plans included dividing one the largest single school systems in the country (comparable to those of Los Angeles or New York) into seven, more manageable districts.

After the storm, the department’s focus had to shift to the singular task of getting the 1,100-school system open. “After Katrina, only three schools were opened more than four months after the storm. In Puerto Rico, we opened half the schools in two months,” said Christian.

The task of opening schools did not fall on administrators alone. Aida Diaz is the President of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (AMPR), a 40,000-member teacher’s union that worked with the Department of Education in school assessments.

Union members went door to door, visiting over 18,000 families to identify needs. They found over 3,100 students who had completely lost their homes and belongings. 2,000 teachers had home damage, over 260 with total losses.


“We had seven groups of teachers -- one per region -- to diagnose the status of the schools and certify with the Army Corps of Engineers if they were good enough to open,” she told VICE impact. Many were opened without electricity or running water. Teachers and parents repaired water damage, cleared debris, and removed dangerous wires. Teachers even cleaned water tanks that were contaminated with mold and dead birds.

This week, a video surfaced on the internet of la Academia Bautista Puerto Nuevo, a K-12 school in San Juan, showing the school’s electricity finally being turned back on. The joy on the faces of the children, staff and teachers represent the hopes and dreams of an island trying its best to make do with what it has, but that is deserving of much, much more.

Union members went door to door, visiting over 18,000 families to identify needs. They found over 3,100 students who had completely lost their homes and belongings. 2,000 teachers had home damage, over 260 with total losses.

Educators across the island took the lead in community efforts.

“After the storm, we changed our approach to programs. We visited over 6,000 homes to evaluate what the students and families needed, like food, water, lamps and generators” Jose Diaz, the Executive Director of Centros Sor Isolina Ferre (CSIF), a nonprofit that runs alternative schools and programs for adults and high-risk youth, told VICE Impact. With the help and funding from mainland organizations like the Hispanic Federation, the CSIF went about the task of providing over 300,000 pounds of food and 20,000 gallons of water to island residents.


What’s striking when speaking to educators and administrators on the island is that they see very little distinction between the problems in the school system due to the storms, and due to the fiscal cuts mandated by the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico (created by the PROMESA Act of 2016). Over 180 schools were set to close in 2017 alone, before any were affected by Hurricane Maria.

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Mercedes Martinez, President of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR), is an outspoken critic of Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. She believes that the secretary is using the hurricane to implement the “charter-ification” of Puerto Rico, as New Orleans did after Katrina, where over 90 percent of schools were turned into charter schools (which are non-union). “Keleher has her own agenda,” Martinez told VICE impact. “These partnerships are to promote capitalism over education, erase our culture, and gentrify the island.”

Rafael Feliciano - former FMPR president and current secretary of the organization says the secretary closes schools despite community efforts.

“The people distrust the government, and that distrust is warranted."

“The Escuela Marcelino Canino Canino in the municipality of Dorado had been under six feet of water and was closed by the Department of Education,” Feliciano said. “The community mobilized, fixed, repaired and cleaned the school. The teachers continued to teach classes, and together they got the Department to open the school again. “


Students from Escuela Republica De Colombia in Caguas protesting for the school to be reopened. (photo via FMPR)

Keleher disputes the claims by the FMPR.

“There are no plans to turn all the schools into charters. The Governor’s political platform, on which he was elected, included charters and vouchers that are intended to be implemented by the Rosello administration, but there is no plan to make that universal,” Keleher told VICE Impact.

“The people distrust the government, and that distrust is warranted. Former office holders have failed the people,” Keleher continued, referring to the June 2017 arrest of senior recreation officials, and the 2002 arrest of a former Education Secretary. But she says that “people misunderstand the implications of the fiscal crisis on a day-to-day perspective. The crisis is like a cloud that follows you around everywhere, making it rain all the time.”

The community continues to organize and protest to keep the schools open.

FMPR’s efforts are providing an alternative to working with the Department, forming so-called “Impact Brigades” consisting of members from their union, the CET (a private employees union) and the PIP, the Independence political party of Puerto Rico. They provide voluntary labor to repair schools and raise money via a gofundme page for materials. The FMPR is also partnered with MOREUFT, the Movement of Rank and File Educators, an affiliate of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in a program to connect schools on the island and the U.S. mainland directly to work on individualized needs without a middle person.


The biggest challenge to educators who want to rebuild the school system is access to funds.

Keleher says that the best way for the schools to recover post-Maria, is for the Department of Education to get back to implementing the reforms they began last January before the storms. However, the storm recovery has made the already difficult implementation of these plans even more so.

Members of FMBR’s “Impact Brigades” Repair a school roof. (photo via the FMPR)

To set things back in motion, Keleher, along with private funders and philanthropists, have started their own foundation called the Puerto Rico Education Foundation.

“The Foundation will help improve schools, make them more competitive, and is the best way to improve the overall quality of education for the island post-hurricane by providing access to talent, information, financial resources and partnerships that are not accounted for in the budget,” Keleher said.

The biggest challenge to educators who want to rebuild the school system is access to funds, and the current exodus of families from the island.

Secretary of Education Julia Keleher (third from left) at Escuela Manuel Negrón Collazo in Vega Baja. (photo via PR Department of Education)

”The Department of Education has over 23,000 school transfer requests from families on the mainland,” Christian says. “It is our young families that are moving fastest. In first and second grade it's easier to move, there is little holding your back.’

The exodus makes it harder to justify keeping schools open. “It is naive to think that with the ever-dwindling population on the island, an exodus started during the fiscal crisis and exacerbated by the hurricane, the school system could continue to function and not have to close some schools. In the the early 2000s, Puerto Rico had 750,000 matriculants in over 1,500 schools. By next year, they are anticipating 300,000.” Keleher stated. “The schools are woefully underfunded - some of them haven’t purchased books in over 10 years.”


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FEMA funds have been slow to arrive for major school repair projects. Nonprofits like the CSIF don’t even qualify. Just recently, the Trump. administration denied Puerto Rico an already-approved $1 billion loan for rebuilding efforts. The work being done by organizations like CSIF, AMPR and FMPR is funded by outside donations, mostly from individuals in the diaspora in cities like Orlando, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, and institutions like the Hispanic Federation, the AFT, and Save the Children.

What the U.S. government has failed to do, the island’s educators have been doing using their own sweat equity.

CSIF Staff Members deliver supplies in Paso Seco, Santa Isabel. (image via CSIF)

“Over 90 percent [of staff] returned to work as soon as they could on a volunteer basis, as the program was not capable of paying them at the time,” Mr. Diaz said.

“Some teachers have gone so far as to clean uniforms which were discarded by stores that were affected by the storm and redistributed them to the students so they had something to wear,” said Ms. Diaz.

But there is only so much that can be done with grit alone. “We need cisterns and solar panels and generators, ways to have sustainable energy for the schools,” Christian said. “If the school has electricity, classes go till 3pm. If not, because of the afternoon heat and lack of air conditioning, classes can only go till 12:30pm.”

“My expectations for the future are not very high” Diaz of the CSIF confessed. “ I foresee a big reduction to programs, even federally backed programs. At the community level, people are getting desperate. We need to create hope, but without clean water or electricity – How do you sell the future?”

As a guide, the Department has created a catalog of curriculum-based materials and supplies that people can buy from locally approved vendor and donate to the school system focusing on STEM, arts and music, robotics, and project based learning. Those interested in donations, volunteering, or partnerships with schools can contact the Department of Education .

AMPR Teachers Clearing Debris at SU Andres Sandin in Yabucoa. (photo via AMPR)

The AMPR union continues to raise donations via their site for basic needs for families, especially clothing for children. People can contact the AMPR .. It is also raising money via a gofundme page for Evelyn Rivera, a teacher who was buried alive for six hours in a mudslide during the storm. The incident took her home, her leg and her husband’s life. In spite of this tragedy, Ms. Rivera is motivated to get back to the classroom.

The CSIF is still rebuilding its facilities. They lost an entire school building and offices where they hold other programs. As a non-profit contractor for the federal government, they also have outstanding invoices with the U.S. Federal Government and the PR Department of Families from as far back as February 2017, totaling over $1.5 million. Mr. Diaz says that without donations they would not be able to function at the capacity they are now. Any donation will help.

You can contact, donate, volunteer or partner with Secretary Keleher and the Puerto Rico Education Foundation.