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Puerto Rican Education Secretary Details a Guided Rebound of Devastated Schools

Still recovering from Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rico Department of Education is steadily rebuilding and restructuring schools throughout the island.

Julia Keleher, the secretary of education for Puerto Rico, addressed the matter at a Thought Leader presentation on Friday at the AASA national conference.

The Category 5 hurricane devastated schools in September 2017, and according to Keleher, the Puerto Rican government did not have the resources to reopen every school. Consequently, more than 400 public schools were forced to consolidate with some still in disrepair.

To set the scene, Keleher described a typical Puerto Rican student’s daily experience.

“The buildings don’t have stable electricity, and there’s no air conditioning,” she said. “They don’t have computers, and books haven’t been purchased since 2000. There’s mold.”

In addition, teacher compensation exacerbates the plight of that student. “The teacher doesn’t even show up to school because she has these days that the government doesn’t want to pay her for so she’s just staying home, and there’s no sub. So the child is just out on the patio.”

To combat this issue, Keleher said the first step was establishing a clear vision.

Equitable resources for all students, connecting students to the workforce and attending to the needs of the whole child are a few ideas that Keleher had in mind. Ultimately, Keleher is working to rebuild an educational system that the students, teachers and community love and value.

“It’s important that we make people aware that school outcomes have implications not just for the lives of these children, but for the future of the island,” said Keleher. “The economic development is inextricably linked to the success of the public education system.”

To accomplish this vision, Keleher emphasized the importance of having defined measurable benchmarks and goals.

“You have to be able to point to something specific, especially in a crazy environment,” Keleher said.

At this time, every public school in Puerto Rico is provided with nurses trained in trauma screening. Teachers and principals have received a modest raise. Additionally, the department of education has purchased and distributed updated textbooks for all core subjects and secured 150,000 laptops for students and teachers.

All of these improvements, Keleher explained, represent incremental steps that will lead to a public school system Puerto Rico can be proud of.

Before ending the presentation, Keleher reminded her audience that no matter the project, leaders should be flexible on the means to the end, but never settle for less on the vision itself.

(Christian Balderas is a senior major in communication at UCLA and an intern with AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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