Puerto Rico’s schools can rise up from the hurricane's devastation

Puerto Rico’s schools can rise up from the hurricane's devastation
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More than 40 days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, our school system is still reeling from its impact. One week ago, we made every effort to open back up as many schools as possible.

But challenges persist. Principal among these is ensuring the safety and security of our schools; while this is a top priority we need to keep accelerating the pace of inspections. Families need their children back in school. Students want to return to their studies. School communities are seeking a sense of routine and normalcy.

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Nevertheless, I remain committed to seeing how we can turn these challenges into opportunities. Our schools and our families have shown that they are resilient. This is the first sign that we can build back better.

 

In version 2.0 of our public education system, students will be empowered by first class opportunities to learn. Teachers will be rewarded and incentivized to continue the amazing work they do. The significant challenges we face right now, only sharpen our focus on our ultimate goal: transforming public education in Puerto Rico.

Make no mistake: I know we have a long way to go. A day in the life of a Puerto Rican student right now is tough. Many children are still shaken by what they witnessed during Hurricane Maria — trees downed, roofs blown off of homes, prized possessions ruined or lost.

Our phase one support efforts will continue to focus on the needs of students who are struggling to overcome the emotional toll of Hurricane Maria. We need assistance to bolster our wellness and mental health support for students and teachers.

This phase also includes facilitating a smooth transition for those who decide to leave the island. We are grateful for the collaboration of our stateside colleagues who are helping us create better data systems to transfer student records and maintain communications with mainland school districts.

Our efforts to transform public education in Puerto Rico will include addressing the needs of students that are still living in shelters — they have lost their homes, their clothes, their toys and other things they hold dear. It also includes us helping parents as they struggle to keep their children clean, fed and nurtured. While they are wondering what is worse — sticking it out for the sake of stability or uprooting their children to a new school system on the mainland — we are working hard to give them tangible evidence that public education will come back better than ever. The struggle will be worth it in the end.

Last week, we opened schools in San Juan and Mayaguez, and are making progress in Bayamon, Ponce, Caguas, Humacao and Arecibo. To stay on track, we need reliable water and power sources and immediate repair work to be completed. But getting schools open is just one step. We owe it to our children, their parents and our educators to truly reform the system so that it works for everyone. So that we provide our students a pathway to learn, excel and succeed.

What would a redesign of Puerto Rico’s educational system look like? Let’s start with building resilient schools by aligning post-hurricane repairs with planned consolidations. That means fewer, but better schools that are prepared to withstand climate shocks, modernized with technology to facilitate online learning and equipped to produce workforce-ready graduates. Let’s talk about school constructions that are aligned with urban planning and economic development efforts that mutually reinforce ease of access and workforce opportunities. We urge companies that are part of rebuild efforts to also build up our communities by providing internships for our students and other local employment options.

Puerto Rico’s schools could benefit from stronger ties with mainland schools that enable us to create proofs of concept for new educational innovations. The future should include partnerships with Promise Zones that expand opportunities in low-income communities through co-investments in education, workforce development and housing.

Now more than ever, Puerto Rico needs an intellectually curious and entrepreneurial next generation that can infuse new ideas to solve chronic problems. Looking ahead, we need assistance from the mainland to move toward a PK-16 model that ensures Puerto Rican students are uniquely competitive because of their bilingualism. We need innovative programs that facilitate exchanges for Puerto Rican students to study in Spanish-speaking countries and encourage mainland students to study Spanish in Puerto Rico.

This work has been accelerated by the new partnerships and friendships we have formed with our stateside colleagues. We are fortunate to have received assistance from the Departments of Education of New York and Florida, including several systems gurus that have been instrumental in getting our schools back up and running.

We will continue to be forward-thinking in how we address our current challenges. We will continue to learn from others and apply best practices that have worked elsewhere. We are ready to build bridges and need a helping hand — especially in attracting talent to the island that can help us stay agile as we manage shifts in student enrollment and think ahead about improvements to learning.

The task ahead will not be easy. But Puerto Ricans are a resilient community, with a big heart, a deep commitment to the island and an unyielding spirit. They are innovative, collaborative and giving. Right now, we simply need some structured opportunities to unleash our talents, ideas and potential. With our fellow educators on the mainland, we can not only open back up our schools, but deliver not the promise of a better future for Puerto Rico.

Julia Keleher is the secretary of education in Puerto Rico.