By Tatiana Díaz Ramos and José M. Encarnación Martínez, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The Puerto Rico Department of Education’s (DE) “vision of the future” proposes the closing of another 83 schools by 2026, affecting 18,644 students, according to a new infrastructure master plan to which the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo had access, although in May 2021 Interim Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés pledged that the agency would not close more campuses.
Most of these closings, which the Department calls “consolidations” in the document and which are displayed on an interactive map created by the DE, are in the educational regions of Humacao, Ponce and San Juan. Humacao and Ponce, preceded by Mayagüez and San Juan, were the regions that saw the most closings in the past four years, under the administration of the former secretary and now federal convict, Julia B. Keleher. Although the plan identifies some as receiver schools, it does not specify from which closed campus they will receive students.
These new proposed closings clash with teacher unions’ demands for more space to guarantee small groups of students in the face of the COVID-19 rebound, as well as from other organizations and academics that have proven how the quality of teaching improves through these practices. Prior closings did not represent significant savings for the Department of Education.
Of all the schools that the DE proposes to close as per the document, seven percent are specialized. Some offer unique curricula such as the Central High School of Visual Arts and the Julián E. Blanco Ballet School, both located in San Juan, as well as the José B. Barceló School in Adjuntas, which has a curriculum focused on agriculture, and two schools specialized in music.
“School closings in Puerto Rico have happened much faster than the decline in the school-age population, which means that the reduction in the school population can no longer be the excuse to close. If you have a smaller school population, you have a good opportunity now to have smaller schools and classrooms with fewer students, which is already more than proven to help better effectiveness,” said Eileen Segarra, director of the Observatorio de Educación.
The document outlining the new wave of closings came from the office of Education Deputy Secretary Héctor J. Sánchez, according to its metadata, and is stamped with the agency’s official logos.
The Federation of Teachers confirmed to the CPI that it had access to the new infrastructure plan and confronted the Secretary, who assured that it is a draft from last semester.
“He told me that it’s not a final and firm document, that they were going to work on it now with the communities and if the communities don’t want [closings], then it won’t happen. Now they’re moving on to an evaluation process with the school communities,” said Federation President Mercedes Martínez, adding that they will get more details in a subsequent meeting with Ramos Parés.
The revised document would be ready in the summer of 2022, as indicated. Meanwhile, the president of the Teachers’ Association, Víctor Bonilla, confirmed he is unaware of the closing plan.
“This is a surprise to me, because if it exists, neither the Local Union nor we know about it. In meetings with Eliezer [Ramos] Parés, he hasn’t discussed any school closings,” he said.
The Secretary of Education contradicted himself when interviewed by the CPI, as he said that there is no plan to close or consolidate schools, but that the agency is “initiating a consultation process,” while accepting that there is an interactive map. “I acknowledge that an interactive map is being developed,” said Ramos Parés, whose permanent designation could go up for Senate consideration next week.
“The map is being designed based on the preliminary information that will receive input, right, as the consultation process continues,” he said. He then mentioned that the information on the map “is ideas with examples,” but that it “hasn’t been made public and people haven’t been informed.” However, the CPI was able to see the map published online with the 83 schools listed for consolidation.
The Secretary insisted that there is no closing plan, but one to “rebuild the educational system.” “There’s a reconstruction plan for the entire educational system, which is what’s going to be designed, and that plan requires that all the communities be consulted. This process is still in its initial phase … Yes, there are examples of the potential to build modern schools with new infrastructure and give that advantage to several schools that are nearby and within an area.”
“I can tell you that I, as Secretary, haven’t made a decision and I’m the only one empowered to make a decision to establish a consolidation plan. That hasn’t happened and we’re going to be transparent with everyone when it comes to deciding that, which can actually happen, it can happen. We’re still seeing a drop in population. That’s a fact and obviously we need to maximize resources,” he concluded.
Central High in San Juan
Although Central High School is on the list of schools to be closed both in the document and in the interactive map, Ramos Parés stressed that it’s one of those he does not intend to close.
“For me, schools like Central, for example, aren’t going to close. It may be on a list. Someone may have included it in a presentation, to give an example of something, but I assure you that a specialized school that has a maximum enrollment, that has a waiting list, and that has some specific facilities and that already has a remodeling plan in place, I won’t (close) it in the future.”
For José Morales, history teacher for the past 16 years at the nearly century-old Central High School and president of the Parents’ Council, the way in which the DE has handled the school’s structural issues suggests the intention of closing it. Hurricane María worsened the leaks on the top floor of the building built in 1925, and with the 2020 earthquakes, parts of the arches cracked and stucco fell off.
“We feel that the way the Department has handled the school roof situation and how it handles the situation at other schools, that it would be easier for them to close the school than fix it, regardless of the implications that it might have for our school community, especially for our students. It’s sad because it’s the only school specializing in Visual Arts in Puerto Rico,” said Morales.
Irene S. Castillo, who graduated from the specialized school in May, remembers the effects of Hurricane María well. “In 9th grade, I went through a similar situation,” she said. “Because of the hurricane [María] they had proposed to close the school. Although it isn’t the first time, they’ve done it [propose the closing], it still hurts and frustrates. What will they do if they close it? Are they going to turn it into a nice little hotel?”
Her mother, Maribella Maldonado, who belonged to the Parents’ Council, shares her daughter’s fear.
“The thing is that Central is located in a historic building, in an attractive area that is greatly gentrifying, that is surrounded by buildings that have been bought by other investors, and others that have always been ready to pounce on that building and its privileged location,” she added.
As opposed to Morales, the director of Central High School, Cynthia López, is surprised by the DE’s proposed closing, since in December engineers did a walkthrough to evaluate the structure and necessary repairs.
“When I heard this [the proposed closing] it was bittersweet because it isn’t what [the DE] has been telling us. The information I had was that the restoration work was going to be done. All the repairs that have already been done in the school—the work was done while we were there, regardless of the arrangements we must make as an institution. We have 593 students. We have 92 employees. There’s no space in the municipality of San Juan that can accommodate such a large enrollment,” said López.
Edgardo Delgado is a teacher of voice and fundamentals at the Libre de Música School in Humacao, a municipality that lost nine public schools due to closings in 2017 and 2018.
Now, the DE plans to close another five campuses: Braulio Ayala Pérez, in the Mambiche neighborhood; Cándido Berríos, from the Candelero Arriba sector; as well as the Rufino Vigo, the Avelino Peña Vélez and the Escuela Libre de Música. The move will affect some 1,191 students, according to agency projections documented in the infrastructure master plan. Humacao would be left with 11 public schools.
Delgado started working at Libre de Música in October but grew up there. His father worked at the school for 19 years and his sister has already worked there for nine years.
“We’re clear that there’s an agenda to close the music schools, the symphony orchestra, the University of Puerto Rico (UPR), et cetera. But formally, on the part of the faculty, I dare to say that the Department’s formal intentions are unknown,” Delgado assured.
“The school closing has been talked about for a long time, but it’s something that we aren’t going to allow. I practically grew up there,” he said, anticipating that he will start conversations with the school community.
According to the Community Survey (done by the US Census Bureau), as of 2019, 19% (2,305) of families residing in Humacao had annual incomes of no more than $10,000.
Vieques: School Community Is Oblivious to the Closings
In Vieques, an island municipality located some nine miles off the eastern coast of the big island, two of the six public schools that the island municipality has would close: the Germán Rieckehoff High School and the Adrianne Serrano School. They had a combined enrollment of 309 students, as of when the new plan was developed. According to the document, in the Isabel II sector on the island’s northern coast, a school for students of all levels would be built. It isn’t specified how, with what money, or when it would be ready.
The director of the Adrianne Serrano School, Josuán Aloyo Corsino, told the CPI that he was unaware that the institution that he heads is part of a list of schools that will be closed. He acknowledged that he was aware of the DE master plan and that he participated in a meeting in December in which “ideas” were presented and during which “the possibility of consolidating schools as long as it’s the best option for those municipalities” was presented.
“In our case, the consultation hasn’t been done yet. [The master plan idea] was presented to us at a meeting in December. It was Prof. Héctor Joaquín Sánchez who was preparing that report that they have to send to the federal government, but at the local level the consultation hasn’t been done, much less have we been told the different alternatives,” the director said. The principal is also responsible for the Juanita Rivera Albert Montessori School in the Esperanza neighborhood.
Aloyo Corsino believes the school closings are not a good idea, because “right now we need to protect small schools and ensure that they have the necessary resources. Every project that contemplates impacting a town must first contemplate the town’s interest. What do people think? They must consult [with us] before imposing a plan on us. They have to discuss it, because Viequenses have special needs and someone sitting in a cubicle, in an office behind closed doors at the central level may not necessarily understand the idiosyncrasies of the municipality.”
At least 23 people work at Adrianne Serrano School who report directly to the director. “How do you relocate those people?” asked Corsino. “I have a team that works through partnerships that also work at the school. What will be done with all that school personnel? First, you must consult with the people before imposing such a drastic change.”
The Adrianne Serrano School does not have a school cafeteria. “The central school cafeteria department hasn’t reopened our cafeteria. We get food from the Juanita Rivera Albert school. That has been the case since 2018 or 2019. After Hurricane María we were left without a cafeteria,” Corsino added.
Meanwhile, Prof. Carmen Delerme, who for the past 10 years has directed the Germán Rieckehoff High School, was surprised by the DE’s new plan. Delerme is against the closing of schools.
“[It’s] the only high school with vocational education offerings, where most of the students from here attend.” she said. “They graduate from middle school, and they report to that school. The other option we have is Adrianne Serrano School, which is Montessori, and not everyone participates in that model of teaching. It would be a crime to close that school.”
Delerme assured the CPI there have been no talks on this matter in the community. She took the opportunity to offer a historical account and explain how school logistics emerged in the island municipality.
“The 20 de Septiembre Middle School was born out of need because all students were attending the high school, which ran from 7th to 12th grade. And back then there was a situation with 7th graders, who were girls, with high school men,” she said. “There was a people’s movement and all the work here in Vieques was stopped. Everybody stopped. A strike. A middle school was required. At that time, it was from 7th to 9th. The 20 de Septiembre Middle School was built, leaving the high school only for grades 10, 11 and 12 and the special education groups.
“So now you want to put them all in one place? Of course, there are political interests there so that only one person directs everything. I’m against it, period. The Vieques high school cannot disappear,” she stressed.
Delerme, who retired in the summer of 2021, claimed that the high school community is oblivious to what is happening, “because there’s a lot of talk, but they aren’t consulted or anything.”
“The roof of the school’s basketball court flew off in 2017 with Hurricane María. What have they done? Nothing. Close it, it can’t be used. They think it’s enough just to say that,” she said. “That school was founded in 1968. Why is it named after Don Germán? Because he proposed it. Here [in Vieques] children could only attend school up to 8th grade. When he left Vieques, he took that concern with him. This is how this high school came about, so that all our students would have a high school like every town in Puerto Rico, providing an excellent education so they would not have to go to the big island to study. If they insist on closing it, we’ll defend it. It’s a warning.”
Germán Riekehoff Sampayo, born and raised in Vieques, was for years the chairman of the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee.
Yabucoa: Not Even the Mayors Were Consulted
In 2014, there were 21 public schools in Yabucoa. Today there are 14. Looking ahead to 2026, the closing of another four schools is expected: the Manuel Ortiz School in the Jácanas neighborhood, Marta Sánchez from the Playita sector, the José Cintrón and Annex, and the Rosa Costa Valdivieso—all elementary schools. At least 579 of the 3,163 students that make up Yabucoa’s active enrollment would be affected by the closings and would have to be distributed among five other schools in the town.
Mayor Rafael Surillo is unaware of the closing plan. He says he has not received anything related to the matter. However, he stressed that Yabucoa cannot lose one more school, since vulnerable communities have been seriously affected by the closings of the past years. In 2017, Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico entering through Yabucoa, located on the eastern coast.
“In our case, they practically left the rural area without schools,” said the municipal official. “Right now, I only have one in the Tejas neighborhood, in the Jácana neighborhood, in Camino Nuevo and in Aguacate. But the entire mountain area has practically been left without schools. If they take away the school, the entire community is going to be very affected, because it will be left without an educational center that also functions as a community center, for community training, which is essential to have there.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Community Survey, as of 2019, 25 percent of the families residing in Yabucoa registered annual income that did not exceed $10,000.
“Did the enrollment drop?” asked Surillo “Then we’re going to create special schools, (for) those children who were left behind, which are fewer. We should not have an excuse for them to come out better prepared, because they will develop in a school specialized in science, technology, agriculture, sports, mathematics. We want to create a school population that is up-and-coming and that is much better prepared than how we’re doing now.”
According to the DE’s new master plan, three schools in Yabucoa are also up for demolishing and rebuilding: the Teodoro Aguilar Mora, Rogelio Rosado Second Unit and Luis Muñoz Marín schools. Those three schools would take in students from schools that close. “Major repairs” would also be carried out in the Jesús Sanabria Cruz Second Unit and in the Cristóbal del Campo schools.
The plan calls for the elimination of 15 southwestern schools classified as unfit after the earthquakes in early 2020, an area where construction has not been completed on a single school for two years. The only school that was partially suitable in Guánica, the María McDougall School, would also close, while in Guayanilla, only two schools would remain open. Both municipalities have a combined enrollment of 3,129 students.
Since 2010, the DE has closed 10 schools between Guánica and Guayanilla, five in each town. The school closings began in both towns in 2014 with the shutdown of the María del Rosario Cruz Claudio School in Guánica, and the Consuelo Feliciano and Zoilo Ferrero schools in Guayanilla.
Two years later, the Teresita Nazario School in Guánica was closed. But it was in 2018 that both towns experienced the most closings, under the administration of Keleher and her successor, Eligio Hernández. In Guánica, the Fraternidad, Olga Evangelina Colón and Ceferino Colón Luca schools were closed. In Guayanilla, the Consejo, Francisco Rodríguez López and the centenary Padre Nazario schools, built in 1920, closed.