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Puerto Rico’s beleaguered public schools face controversial reform after Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico's school system was struggling long before Hurricane Maria struck a year ago. But the disaster exacerbated deep problems, as schools were destroyed, thousands of children moved to the U.S. mainland and students struggle with trauma. Now, special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports, the system is at a crossroads as the schools chief advocates for charter schools.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    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 or 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 Cardoza:

    Twelve-year-old Yomar Sanchez Cintron says even thinking about Hurricane Maria hurts his heart.

  • Yomar Sanchez Cintron (through translator):

    I was terrified I lost my house. And seeing it destroyed was very, very hard. I had my things there, furniture and my bed. It was very, very tough.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Yabucoa was among the hardest-hit areas when Hurricane Maria came barreling through Puerto Rico. This elementary school was closed for almost four months.

    Principal Maraida Caraballo Martinez plays a video of the aftermath.

  • Maraida Caraballo Martinez (through translator):

    That is the lunchroom. We lost all the ceiling. About 50 percent of the school was destroyed.

    I still have emotions.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    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.

  • Maraida Caraballo Martinez (through translator):

    When it rains, when they see thunder, they hear thunder, they get afraid. So, they suffer.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Psychologist Joy Lynn Suarez says all of Puerto Rico has been traumatized.

  • Joy Lynn Suarez:

    It's an island that's been ripped apart. These children were already dealing with so much violent surroundings, island that's bankrupt, people leaving. They just can take so much.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Suarez, who is also a consultant to the Education Department here, says she has seen significant increases in rates of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicide attempts.

  • Joy Lynn Suarez:

    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 Cardoza:

    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.

  • Julia Keleher:

    From one year to the next, you lost almost 14,000 students.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    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.

  • Julia Keleher:

    The idea was to have buildings at 85, 90 percent capacity, so that 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 Cardoza:

    Keleher believes this will improve policy, which in turn will improve learning.

    Puerto Rico's test scores are far below the U.S. average.

  • Julia Keleher:

    The NAEP scores this year, in eighth grade, there wasn't one student, not one, who demonstrated proficiency.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    But changes to the educational system are fiercely opposed by both teachers unions here.

  • Mercedes Martinez Padilla:

    This is by far the worst semester that we have had in the history of public education in our system.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Mercedes Martinez Padilla is the president of the Teachers' Federation of Puerto Rico.

  • Mercedes Martinez Padilla:

    Teachers are very anxious. Teaches fear 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 your benefits, their rights, their salaries, their pensions.

    So, it's very bad for teachers right now.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    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 more sinister, long-term agenda to destabilize education.

  • Mercedes Martinez Padilla:

    They shut down the schools. They create chaos in the public education system. People ask or scream for privatization. They make a business, and they make profit out of it.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    Padilla is referring to perhaps the most contentious change, Governor Ricardo Rossello's 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.

    The Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico runs the island's first charter school. Eduardo Carrera Morales is the CEO.

  • Eduardo Carrera Morales:

    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 Cardoza:

    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 school, 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

    Union leader Padilla is pushing for Keleher to pay teachers more, limit class sizes and forget about charter schools.

  • Mercedes Martinez Padilla:

    The government used the hurricane as an excuse to achieve their plans of privatization.

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    But Keleher dismisses a secret agenda and says this is an opportunity to improve a struggling system.

  • Julia Keleher:

    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 Cardoza:

    Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King has a personal connection to the island.

  • John King:

    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 Cardoza:

    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.

  • John King:

    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 Cardoza:

    King says short-term needs like water and power are important, but there also needs to be a focus on the long term.

  • John King:

    And that means investing in school. 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 Cardoza:

    Wilfredo Vega missed most of his junior year of high school.

  • Wilfredo Vega:

    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 Cardoza:

    Instead of looking forward to graduating, Wilfredo has more immediate concerns.

  • Wilfredo Vega:

    The most we think about, if another hurricane comes here, what will happen?

  • Kavitha Cardoza:

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico.

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