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(Special) Education in Puerto Rico: “Here, All of the Parents are Desperate.”

October 4, 2018

In an age in which news is “new” for only a moment, it is easy for the unaffected to quickly move past profound issues that deserve attention on behalf of the neediest individuals in our nation– not just in the contiguous US– not just in US states– but also in US territories.

In September-October 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, a US territory that continues to suffer not only the effects of the storm, but also a terrible aftermath in which rescue and rebuilding are proving to be an American embarrassment.

As for education in Puerto Rico, prior to Maria, the island was being subjected to school closure, ostensibly related to the territory’s fiscal problems. Following Maria, school closure in Puerto Rico is a storm in its own right, one that feeds on itself as the population of the island has dropped.

In this post, I offer excerpts from three articles about the state of education in Puerto Rico, particularly the state of special education. I invite readers to follow the links and read the articles in their entirety. We must not forget Puerto Rico.

The first comes from the October 02, 2018, Learning English VOA News and is entitled, “Puerto Rico Students Still Suffer Effects of Hurricane Maria”:

One year has passed since Hurricane Maria struck the United States territory of Puerto Rico.

But even before the storm hit, education officials had begun closing schools on Puerto Rico to save money.

Last year, the territory’s government sought legal protection from creditors because it owed billions of dollars in debts that could not be paid.

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Maria, the number of students on the island dropped as conditions worsened. Thousands of Puerto Rican families fled to the U.S. mainland. Many students ended up attending schools in Florida or other states along the East Coast.

At the time, education officials reported that about half of Puerto Rico’s schools had lower than normal student attendance rates. Only about 60 percent of classroom seats were filled. The government ended up closing nearly 300 schools. Education officials said the move was necessary to meet budget targets.

But the closures created problems for Puerto Rican students and their parents when the new school year started a few weeks ago. With many schools closed, some students had to travel outside their neighborhood to attend school. Their parents often were required to find transportation to and from the school. …

The effects of school closure in Puerto Rico segues into this September 28, 2018, article in Bloomberg.com, entitled, “How a Hurricane Is Still Punishing Special Ed Kids a Year Later”:

As the first anniversary of Hurricane Maria approached, Ruth González wasn’t focused on how deadly that storm had been. She was worried about how many weeks of school her son Kaleb would miss this fall.

Kaleb is 4 years old and autistic. After a year of upheaval, he and hundreds of other children in need of special education were greeted not with a rebuilt and recovered school system, but with chaos. Their first weeks were marked by what one advocate called “the storm after the natural storm,” a sweeping reorganization that involved closing approximately one quarter of Puerto Rico’s public schools.

Public education in Puerto Rico, and special education in particular, has been in bad shape for decades, reflecting the strains of not only the island’s poverty, but a decade of depopulation and budget cuts forced by its 2017 bankruptcy. Hurricane Maria killed several thousand people and laid waste to buildings, towns, cities and the power grid. It also displaced thousands of residents to the mainland, many of whom may never return. The closings initiative, pushed through by the island’s secretary of education, was already under way when Maria struck. The storm’s aftermath helped accelerate it. …

The commonwealth’s state of affairs reflects a broader crisis facing all of America’s most vulnerable students. Schools are struggling to provide services in the face of tight budgets and shortages of qualified teachers, psychologists and therapists. Puerto Rico’s system alone is short more than 130 special education instructors.

Moreover, strained school systems have regularly attracted reformers with cures some educators see as worse than the affliction, remedies ranging from charter schools to mass closings. In Puerto Rico, parents and teachers unions have been highly critical of such initiatives launched by Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, a 43-year-old Philadelphia native hired in 2016 on a contract that now pays her $250,000 a year.

Her school closing strategy was never popular—even those sympathetic to her agenda said it was poorly planned—but this summer the criticism reached a crescendo thanks to the combination of its implementation and continuing fallout from Maria. …

And offering additional detail regarding the experiences of specific Puerto Rican families with special needs children is this September 30, 2018, Miami Herald report entitled, “Hundreds of Puerto Rican Schools Closed After Maria. Special Needs Kids Got Left Behind.”, beginning with the story of Brenda López and her son, Angel Torres:

It was the second day of the new school year in Puerto Rico, but 7-year-old Angel Torres wasn’t in class. He was at a physical therapy session, struggling once again to stand on his own, when the boy’s therapist asked his mom how school was going.

“Bad. Terrible,” Brenda López said, frustration spilling out. “The classroom isn’t suitable for him.”

A year after Hurricane Maria changed almost everything on the island, hundreds of parents like López were left struggling to find classrooms, teachers and therapists for their children with autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. What had been a daunting task before the storm — finding a place where their special needs children could thrive — had become vastly harder afterward, as the government shuttered more than 250 schools and the education department scrambled to relocate students and staff. The Department of Education said in late August that it still needed to fill 132 vacancies for special education teachers. And that meant some kids like Angel, who has cerebral palsy and cannot walk on his own or talk, were left in limbo.

The day before, López had taken Angel to school — only to find a cramped space where the air conditioning barely worked, the bathroom was too small for Angel’s wheelchair to enter, and there was no diaper changing table.

There was also no teacher. The six students had been sent home at 11 a.m. on the first day and couldn’t go back until the school, Carmen Casasús Marti Elementary, found a special education teacher.

What frustrated López the most was that her son had attended a great school the previous year with a large, well-equipped classroom and a devoted teacher….

But the government had shut down the elementary school in a wave of closures over the summer triggered by a combination of debt and the exodus of school-age children. …

It had taken years for Angel to take that step, braced against a wall, and his mother was determined he wouldn’t regress. After the hurricane, even with no roof over their heads and the highways impassable, López helped Angel practice standing, mimicking what she had seen his therapist do.

But the hurricane cost them time they didn’t have in the child’s development. And Angel’s family wasn’t the only one.

Lebrón said nearly all of her patients had experienced problems related to the school closures — difficulties finding teachers or therapy, a change in school or classroom, all of it disturbing the delicate balance that many special needs children require to make progress.

“Here,” she said, “all of the parents are desperate.”

Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was suffering prior to Maria; following the storm, the stress– including stress on the public schools– is magnified.

Puerto Rican parents are desperate.

Let’s keep their plight– and their fight– in the public eye.

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Brenda López with son, Angel Torres  (photo by Pedro Portal)

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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

One Comment
  1. Linda permalink

    God help Puerto Rico. The misnamed and mislabeled as liberal, Center for American Progress has the island in its cross hairs, “CAP will continue its work developing bold progressive policies to help P.R.”
    CAP published a paper that cited various sources, NPR, Forbes, WaPo, Scientific American but they omitted the research showing disaster capitalism in Puerto Rico, published research from The Nation, Naomi Klein and The Progressive. Colonialists masquerading as “progressives” making opportunities for hedge funds to take further from the island’s people is evil incarnate.

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