Puerto Rico's education system hangs in the balance amid Hurricane Maria exodus
John Yang: But, first, let's go to another part of the United States affected by last year's hurricanes, Puerto Rico.
Many of those who have left the island for the mainland since Hurricane Maria last September are young students. Officials say that, over the next four years, they expect more than 50,000 students to leave.
Puerto Rico's governor says he wants to create charter schools as part of a plan to overhaul of the debt-ridden island's public school system.
Special correspondent Monica Villamizar has our report, as part of our weekly look at education, Making the Grade.
Monica Villamizar: Eighteen-year-old Rocco Marquez just arrived in Orlando to pursue his dream to play baseball at Lake Howell High School.
Rocco Marquez: Baseball for me is everything, because, when I play baseball, I forget all of this, the school, the problems, everything. I just play baseball and have fun.
Monica Villamizar: He's not a touted prospect brought to the mainland to groom for a professional career. He is one of 25,000 students who left Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria's devastation.
Rocco Marquez: I want to be a big baseball player, and the kids look at me like, I want to be like them. He do a great job. He always tries to do his best and never give up.
Monica Villamizar: When you saw Maria, what did you think? Did you think…
Rocco Marquez: They changed my plans.
When Maria arrived, it is my birthday, September 20. So, a couple days later, I told my mom, mom, I think I have to go, because here, we don't have baseball. They don't know when baseball is going to start, the school, everything. My mom said, OK, if you want to, I'm going to help you.
Monica Villamizar: Rocco's mother came with him to Orlando to get him settled at school and on the baseball team. Now his success depends on his own efforts.
Baseball practice is a daily routine in schools across America, but for Rocco, this sport is his life, and he has made many sacrifices to get here from Puerto Rico.
Rocco is one of about 30 students who came to Lake Howell High School after Maria displaced them. Like many schools in Florida, Lake Howell has given extra attention to Puerto Rican students. The school gives extra counseling and academic support, provides financial assistance when needed, and they're accepting transcripts from Puerto Rico that follow different systems than on the mainland.
School counselor Janibelle Jackson-Stuart, who is also Puerto Rican, helps students transition.
Janibelle Jackson-Stuart: We have to really look at the bigger picture, of what is it that we're trying to do with all these students that are coming in, and play to their strengths, because they have strengths. It's just a different education system.
And when you have a trickle, it's one thing, but when you have a flood, it's a whole different thing.
Monica Villamizar: How does their short-term future look like? Do you think some of them are just going to try to settle here?
Janibelle Jackson-Stuart: These students that have come were not planning on leaving the island. They were going to finish their education on the island. In their mind, they never intended to live here. They never intended to go to universities here. So they're just going to get their diploma and head back home.
And they're hoping that, come summer, the island is more stabilized and they can go back and resume their lives.
Monica Villamizar: The consequences of this mass exodus of Puerto Ricans are being felt on the island. More than half-a-million people have moved to the U.S. mainland since Maria, and the education system hangs in the balance.
The U.S.-appointed secretary of education in Puerto Rico, Julia Keleher, anticipates the closure of at least 200 of the 1,300 public schools.
Julia Keleher: Because there's too many buildings, and there's not enough students. At one point, we had 750,000 kids. So, their buildings aren't filled to capacity. And that was part of the reason why we're going through the consolidation effort. Last year, we closed 167 schools to try and right-size.
Monica Villamizar: About 20 schools damaged in the storm are not expected to reopen, but the policy to close or combine schools started before Hurricane Maria.
It was part of an austerity package imposed on the island to counter its debt.
Edwin Morales, head of the teachers union, was arrested with other teachers as they broke into the Education Department in December to try to speak with Secretary Keleher. He says the storm is being used as a pretext to replace the public system with charter schools and introduce private investment to education.
Edwin Morales: We are talking about vouchers. We are talking about charter schools. We are talking about the possibility of firing teachers that, for us as a union, doesn't help the island to recover.
Monica Villamizar: And recovery will be long. In the Caguas slum of Morales, damaged furniture and debris sits in corners. Collapsed buildings remain.
In this public school, teachers have not received any help. The community got it up and running again. They have relaxed the rules. Uniforms are now optional, since some students don't have power or water in their homes.
Eight-year-old Ashley dreams of life in the U.S. mainland.
Ashley Rivera Campos (through interpreter): There are a lot of gunshots and robberies here. I want to leave.
Monica Villamizar: Her neighborhood is notorious for drug trafficking gangs. Principal Amalia Ramirez says the school needs to stay open to offer kids opportunities and tools to stay away from crime.
Ashley Rivera Campos (through interpreter): I asked my dad if we could leave Puerto Rico. He agreed and said we have to go to Michigan, because we have relatives there. My aunt is there.
Monica Villamizar: When her house flooded, Ashley lost her clothes and outfits that she wore in beauty pageants.
She now walks around clutching a miniature rabbit she found, hoping it brings her good luck.
In San Juan, Rocco's mother, Gini Marxuach, is also hoping for good luck for her son in Florida. She stayed to continue her work as headmaster of an alternative school she founded.
Gini Marxuach: After Maria, we sat with the students, and they were very affected too.
Monica Villamizar: The private school has managed to stay afloat through donations. But now its future is also unclear. One-fifth of the students left after the hurricane, including Rocco.
Gini Marxuach: It was really difficult because Rocco is so helpful at home. He — he's always there, whatever you need. He's a happy, smart — so, it was hard to just — in five days. It wasn't something that we planned. So, he just, OK, you're there. We're here.
So — so, it was — it is still hard, because we talk a lot. We're a very close family.
Monica Villamizar: Everyone here remembers what they were doing the day Maria came. It was a birthday Rocco will certainly not forget.
The family relocated to a small apartment in the capital and are trying to sell their home. The father, Stephan Marquez, a chef, says Rocco may be far from home, but he knows how to cook Puerto Rican food. He has taught all of his boys well.
Rocco is staying with family friends in Orlando, but is otherwise independent. He makes his own food, and he's got a car to drive to school. He's made new friends, including the catcher on his baseball team.
Rocco Marquez (through interpreter): What I really miss is my family, sharing with them, seeing them every day. It is really tough to wake up and not see your mother in the kitchen.
Monica Villamizar: They say they all miss Rocco too, but have high hopes for his new life on the mainland.
It's a new reality for thousands of families like theirs, which are now separated and trying to move on.
Across from the balcony, a giant banner with the Puerto Rican flag says "Fuerza," or strength.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Monica Villamizar in Puerto Rico.
John Yang: To Puerto Rico's southeast lies the tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, also hard-hit by the hurricanes, too.
Our frequent partners at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting recently traveled to Barbuda, where a communal way of life faces the hard task of rebuilding.
You can watch and read about that on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.