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In Puerto Rico, school closings hit families, communities hard

"This is a massacre against Puerto Rico's education," said Puerto Rico Teachers' Association president, Aida Díaz.
Image: Former Obama adminstration officials visit students at the Isaac del Rosario Elementary School in Catano, Puerto Rico
Education Secretary Julia Keleher visits students at a school in Catano, Puerto Rico, on March 23, 2018.Cindy Romero

Still recovering from Hurricane Maria’s wallop, Puerto Rico residents took another hit Friday as they began to learn that their government is shutting down about a quarter of their children’s schools at the end of the year.

The news reached Haydee Del Valle when her son, 12-year-old Nataniel Montañez, arrived home from the Escuela Mercedes Palma, a 1st through 8th grade school in Caguas, Puerto Rico. “They’re closing the school down,” he blurted out just after Del Valle had taken a call from an NBC News reporter.

“We want to inform you that, unfortunately, our school is being consolidated,” Del Valle read in Spanish from the school letter her other son Jariel had retrieved from his backpack.

Puerto Rico’s education department announced late Thursday it would open the coming year with 828 schools in August; 283 schools will be closed. The government said it plans to retain the teachers and place them elsewhere.

Del Valle began to fill with panic as the news set in.

“I don’t even know where the schools they’re being located to are. 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,” she said. “This makes me sad because this is a great school."

The school system has lost 38,762 students since May of 2017. In a statement, Puerto Rico's Department of Education said the closings will ensure the government can provide students with the resources they need after the drop in enrollments.

Many families have been fleeing the island for years as Puerto Rico’s economy has worsened. The exodus grew after Hurricane Maria hit the island last September and as families gave up on waiting for the return of electricity, water and other infrastructure.

According to Puerto Rico’s Education Department, half of the island’s schools are at 60 percent capacity.

Some schools already had been shuttered after losing water and electricity that did not return quickly enough after the storm. Some were only open half the day, using the daylight to conduct classes and relying on water that was trucked in or intermittently flowing.

At the same time, Puerto Rico has been locked in a struggle over education as Gov. Ricardo Rosselló proposed reforms and brought in Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who has pushed to bring charter schools and reform the system since her arrival to the island.

That proposal is part of Rossello’s proposed education overhaul that has put him at odds with the teachers’ union, which was highly critical of the school closures on Friday.

'A massacre,' says teachers group

“This is a massacre against Puerto Rico’s education,” said Aida Díaz, president of Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Teachers Association), which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Teachers already have been protesting the island’s education reforms and the school closings added to the discord.

“I know we have been losing population but many of them are coming back and we didn’t even get a chance to pre-enroll for August,” Díaz said.

There has long been need for school reform in Puerto Rico. Most middle-income and upper income residents enroll their children in private or parochial schools; the island's public schools have largely served lower income children.

But the economic woes have forced some parents to stop paying private school tuition, said Ana María Blanco García, executive director of the Instituto Nueva Escuela, a non-profit that has put Montessori education in 44 public schools in communities throughout the island.

García said closing the schools hits a very vulnerable population. The Puerto Rico public school system still is very rural and many of the schools are small, serving poorer communities that are some distance from urban centers.

Following the hurricane, many schools became community centers and aid distribution sites and shelters. In some communities, parents and neighbors cleaned schools of debris and did repairs, even helping provide food for meals so children could return to classes.

One of the schools on the list for closure is the Inocencio Cintrón Zayas school in the community of Barrancas, in the town of Barranquitas. The school, located by a river, was flooded during the hurricane.

“They want to take the kids to another school … to bus them though a very hard way … and the next school is not in good shape,” García said. “Why do they want to close down a school that is working and is academically one of the best public schools?”

Critics of the government's plan say that it was done without input from community members and educators.

"Even if the spirit is to decentralize, the methodology has been no participation from teachers, parents or alcaldes, (mayors),” said García.

On Friday, Deputy Education Secretary Eligio Hernández told NBC News the closings will help streamline resources for what he considers an underserved population; 71 percent of the student body lives in poverty.

"We have to reconfigure the system to our current realities," said Hernández. The plan includes shifting personnel, including teachers as well as office and janitorial staff to schools with a larger number of students.

Hernández said he understands the resistance to the changes, but he thinks communities will eventually understand the benefits.

For parents, more uncertainty

The school that Del Valle’s boys attend currently serves over 100 students. Usually, school children begin pre-enrolling in March, but that didn’t happen this year. Del Valle said she had planned to enroll her son Jariel for high school last March. He finishes middle school in June. But the school was not enrolling students and instead put him on a waiting list.

Now she’s wondering if other schools will have space for her kids. Under Puerto Rico law, parents can choose which school their children attend.

“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,” she said. “Right now the school where my little one was relocated to, he says people say it is in a bad sector and that worries me.”

“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.”