Puerto Rico’s Educational System Is at a Crossroads a Year After Hurricane Maria


– One year ago this week, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leading to profound implications
for its school system, which had already been
criticized for underperforming. In the aftermath, thousands of children moved to the U.S. mainland and almost 300 schools
were permanently closed. Now, Puerto Rico schools are at a crossroads and facing an overhaul. Special Correspondent, Kavitha
Cardoza, with our partner, Education Week, has a
report from the island. – [Kavitha] 12 year old
Yomar Sanchez Cintron says even thinking about Hurricane
Maria hurts his heart. (speaks in Spanish) – [Translator] I was terrified. I lost my house and seeing it
destroyed was very, very hard. I had my things there- furniture, my bed. It was very, very tough. – [Kavitha Voiceover] Yabucoa was among the hardest hit areas when Hurricane Maria came barrelling through Puerto Rico. This elementary school was
closed for almost four months. Principal Maraida Caraballo Martinez plays a video of the aftermath. – That’s the lunch room. We lost all the ceiling. About 50% of the school was destroyed. I still have emotions. – [Kavitha] Repairs are ongoing. A third of the students have
scattered to the U.S. mainland. The experience was so
traumatic, Martinez says, even a slight rain can make students cry. – When it rains and they see thunder, they hear thunder, they get afraid. So, they suffer. (school bell rings) – [Kavitha] Psychologist Joy Lynn Suarez says all of Puerto Rico
has been traumatized. – It’s an island that’s been ripped apart. These children were already dealing with so much of violent surroundings, island that’s bankrupt, people leaving. They just can take so much. – [Kavitha] Suarez, who
was also a consultant to the Education Department here, says she’s seen significant
increases in rates of anxiety, depression,
PTSD, and suicide attempts. – Families been torn apart. We still have a lot of children
that one of their parents is in the States and
the other one is here. So a year in after the hurricane,
I feel that we’re still very, very present in
hurricane mode still. – [Kavitha] It’s against
this background that the most widespread controversial
education reform efforts in Puerto Rico are playing out. First, a bit of history. This school system was struggling
long before the hurricane. The vast majority of
children are low-income but, by law, aren’t
entitled to the same amount of federal funding that children on the mainland receive, even
though they are U.S. citizens. And each year for the past
decade, roughly 20,000 students have left the school system. Hurricane Maria doubled that. – From one year to the next, you lost almost 40,000 students. (speaking in Spanish) – [Kavitha] Julia Keleher, the
Secretary of Education here, is pushing for aggressive change. Many school buildings
were half full or damaged. So she decided this summer to
close more than 250 of them. Keleher says the system needed cuts so scarce dollars could have more impact. – The idea was to have
buildings at 85, 90% capacity so you could buy sets of
books that would benefit more students and put
computers in that more students could access and take
your resources and assign a full faculty and add a library and have two social workers. – [Kavitha] Keleher believes
this will improve quality which, in turn, will improve learning. Puerto Rico’s test scores are
far below the U.S. average. – The NAEP scores this
year in eighth grade, there was not one student, not one, who demonstrated proficiency. (upbeat, drum music) – [Kavitha] But changes
to the educational system are fiercely opposed by
both teachers’ unions here. (trumpet music while man
speaking in background) – This is by far the worst
semester that we’ve had in the history of public
education in our system. (speaking in Spanish) – [Kavitha] Mercedes Martinez
Padilla is the president of the Teachers’
Federation of Puerto Rico. – Teachers are very anxious. Teachers are feared that
they may lose their jobs. Teachers are being
relocated to distant schools because of the school closures. A lot of them don’t have transportation. They are in fear that they
may lose their benefits, their rights, their
salaries, their pensions. So, it’s very bad for teachers right now. – [Kavitha] Even though
there have been no layoffs, Padilla says school closings
have resulted in overcrowded classrooms and children without
special education services. Padilla sees a most
sinister long-term agenda to destabilize education. – They shut down the
schools, they create a chaos in the public education system. People ask or scream for privatization. They make a business and
they make profit out of it. – [Kavitha] Padilla is
referring to perhaps the most contentious change-
Governor Ricardo Rosselló and Keleher’s decision to
embrace charter schools. They’re publicly-funded
schools that are privately run. Charter schools were illegal
in Puerto Rico until this year. (boys and girls chattering) The Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico runs the island’s first charter school. Eduardo Carrera Morales is the CEO. – We understand that based
on research and leadership that that is not enough to
break some of the cycles of poverty that have hampered
the economy in our island. So to us, this is not about the schools. This is about being able to
break the cycle of poverty. – [Kavitha] Morales
says this charter school is one part of their model. They also offer job training
for students, parents, and after-school programs. Compared with traditional public schools, his charter school spends
almost three times as much money on each child and pays
the non-unionized teachers one and a half times the average salary through private funds. (speaking in Spanish) Union leader Padilla
is pushing for Keleher to pay teachers more, limit class sizes and forget about charter schools. – The government used the
hurricane as an excuse to achieve their plans of privatization. – [Kavitha] But Keleher
dismisses a secret agenda and says this is an opportunity to improve a struggling system. – When you’re trying to implement change, that’s a remarkable moment in time, because you’re normally not
given a kind of stop button, right, and then a restart button. It created a receptiveness
to some of the ideas. – [Kavitha] Former U.S.
Secretary of Education John King has a personal connection to the island. – So this is a picture of my
mother and her younger brother. My mother was born in Puerto Rico and came to the Bronx when she was a kid. – [Kavitha] King, who’s now
the president of a nonprofit, The Education Trust, has
in the past supported both traditional and
charter public schools. But he says the bigger point
is that the federal government should be doing much more
to rebuild Puerto Rico. – We know that nearly as many
people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria as died in 9/11. So, there’s a lack of recognition,
I think, in many parts of the mainland that Puerto Rico really is a full part of the United States. – [Kavitha] King says short-term
needs like water and power are important, but there also needs to be a focus on the long term. – And that means investing in schools. All of us want great things
for our own children. But if we want to live in a great society and a great country, we have
to want that for all children. – [Kavitha] Wilfredo Vega missed most of his junior year of high school. – There was no electricity,
so we only went to school from 7:30 to 12:30, and there was no power here. So everything was very difficult. It definitely set us back
from progressing in school. – [Kavitha] Instead of
looking forward to graduating, Wilfredo has more immediate concerns. – The most we think about, if another hurricane comes
here, what will happen? – [Kavitha] For the PBS
NewsHour and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza in
Yabucoa, Puerto Rico. (inspirational, trumpet music)

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