In the 6th-largest U.S. district, natural disasters have disrupted schooling for years
Updated August 17, 2023 at 5:01 PM ET
SALINAS, Puerto Rico — There was little her family could salvage. Just a few plastic chairs, some photos, her school uniform.
The flooding last fall that devastated the home of Deishangelxa Galarza, a fifth-grader in this coastal area of southern Puerto Rico, also closed her elementary school for three days while the staff cleaned out a foot of muddy water from every first-floor room. Because of the damage to her home, Deishangelxa, pronounced Day-shan-yell-ah, missed two weeks of classes, which upset her.
"School is very important to me because I want to keep studying," she said through a translator last fall. "I want to become a nurse."
For Deishangelxa, it was just the latest interruption in schooling that's been characterized by near-constant disruption. She started kindergarten in 2017, the year Hurricane Maria struck the island. Students missed classes for an average of four months.
Beginning in 2019, when she was in second grade, a series of earthquakes rocked the island, closing Deishangelxa's school for another three months. A few weeks after it reopened, it closed again because of COVID-19. Deishangelxa struggled with virtual learning and fell far behind. In September 2022, Hurricane Fiona unleashed a furious attack on the island, causing widespread flooding and infrastructure damage. Schools shut again — a year and a half after in-person schooling had finally resumed — this time for two weeks. Deishangelxa was 10.
Today, she still struggles with reading and math.
Puerto Rico, the nation's sixth-largest school district, is a system in crisis — no U.S. state comes close to its level of educational impoverishment. The island – and, in turn, the district – is both uniquely vulnerable to natural disasters and unusually ill-equipped to help children recover from the learning setbacks that come with them.
For years, schools have been operating in the shadow of a bankruptcy that still affects every aspect of life on the island. And this week, the district starts its academic year weeks after its secretary of education abruptly resigned — contributing to a turnover rate that has exacerbated an overwhelming distrust in the educational system.
Academic outcomes in Puerto Rico have been on a steady decline since Hurricane Maria.
In 2022, 36% of fourth-graders and 26% of eighth-graders in the states were considered "proficient" in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, commonly called the Nation's Report Card. By comparison, in Puerto Rico, so few students made the cut in either grade that the percentages rounded to zero.
Children in Puerto Rico learn in Spanish, so it's difficult to compare their reading scores with the states, but about a year ago education officials reported only 1% of third-graders were reading on grade level.
Yiria Muñiz, a teacher at the Catholic girls' school Academia María Reina, in San Juan, said Puerto Rico's students have experienced years of disrupted learning, and it shows. Muñiz said she used to teach her students the metric system in a week; now it takes more than two months.
"2017 and 2022 children are not the same," she explained last fall. "If you think about my seventh-graders right now, they've been going through something ever since second grade. So they have missed [out] on many, many opportunities to develop social, academic, behavioral, emotional skills."
Muñiz is constantly having to change her curriculum to accommodate her students. "Everything I've done before is no good anymore."
Federal money has helped, but there's a long way to go
For years, Puerto Rico has faced billions of dollars of debt, corruption and mismanagement in local government, and mass migration that has essentially halved the island's student population in 15 years, from almost 550,000 in 2006 to about 260,000 in 2021.
In March 2021, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona promised "a new day" for Puerto Rico. Over the past two years, he has signed off on about $6 billion in federal funds for the island's school system, almost a billion of which was made possible by reversing a Trump administration decision to restrict pandemic aid to the island. The money has so far been used to hire hundreds of school nurses and psychologists, fund tutoring programs and pay for temporary teacher salary increases.
Chris Soto, a senior adviser to Cardona who heads the federal effort to improve Puerto Rican schools, said it was important to tackle not only the system's short-term needs, but also some of its systemic issues, such as stifling bureaucracy and crumbling infrastructure.
"That way we're not having the same conversation in 20 years," he said.
With an unreliable electric grid and many students lacking internet access and computers at home, online learning was particularly challenging for Puerto Rican students.
Principal Jorge Luis Colón González leads Deishangelxa's school, El Coquí. It's named after a tiny species of frog with an outsized voice that is beloved on the island. Last November, Colón said a third of his students were struggling academically, despite a recovery program he had launched using federal funds. Many of those students, including Deishangelxa, were staying behind after school every day for two hours of extra tutoring.
Colón said he hoped this additional support could help his students catch up. He grew up poor in a nearby town and knows the challenges families in his area face. The per capita income in this region is about $10,000 a year, and many parents are farmers, fishermen and domestic workers. But Colón said education was his way out, and it's a path he fervently wants for his students.
"It's the only tool they have to rise above poverty," he said. "It can change their lives."
Teachers struggle with lack of professional development, poor pay, and politics
First-grade teacher Ady Abreu has been an educator for more than 23 years, but she said she only recently learned how to be effective when she got help from a nonprofit.
"That they found me is the best thing that's happened to me as a teacher," said Abreu, who lives in Carolina, a city about 15 miles east of San Juan.
Before, she didn't use strategies like going over new words more than once, or having students summarize a story, or asking them questions about what they think might happen next.
Teachers across Puerto Rico said they have received little assistance in meeting their students' changing needs. Professional development is often spotty, optional or hastily put together, and many teachers have not received any such support for years, said Victor Manuel Bonilla Sánchez, the president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, a union that represents teachers.
Educators have also been affected by austerity measures in the last couple of years. An oversight board established by the federal government to restructure Puerto Rico's massive debt decided that current educators would no longer receive a guaranteed minimum amount of pension and they would no longer be eligible for retirement benefits before age 63.
In an email to NPR, a spokesperson for the Financial Oversight & Management Board for Puerto Rico said the new retirement plans also "ensured that teachers became eligible for U.S. Social Security, which they had not received before." Victor Manuel Bonilla Sánchez, with the teachers union, points out this change means teachers must also begin paying into Social Security.
And teachers on the island are already poorly paid: The average pay in 2018 was $27,000; that same year, teachers in U.S. states averaged $61,730.
The inadequacy of teacher pay was harshly illustrated in early 2022, when a teacher died in a car crash. It was believed he fell asleep while driving home from night work as a security guard, one of two moonlighting jobs he needed to make ends meet. In response to that tragedy and other events, educators staged massive walkouts, prompting the government to approve a temporary $1,000-a-month bump for all educators, and bonuses for some teachers, paid for with federal relief funds. But it isn't clear what will happen once the money runs out.
"I may never be able to retire at this rate," said Ana Díaz, a third grade teacher who has been teaching for almost two decades. "My fellow teachers are extremely, more than frustrated — I would have to use a stronger expression than that."
Students are living with the trauma of many natural disasters
Then there's the mental health crisis among the island's children. Compounded trauma from the barrage of disasters lingers. Teachers speak of children crying when a passing truck makes the ground vibrate, because it reminds them of an earthquake. Some kids become distracted in class at the slightest sound of raindrops. Others hide food in their pockets and socks.
Dinelys Rodríguez, 14, studies in Toa Baja, about 13 miles from San Juan. She remembered waiting in line with her mother for more than three hours just to enter a supermarket after Hurricane Maria.
"It was hard to get food," she said last fall. "Now, whenever there is a storm, I worry I won't have enough to eat."
One recent assessment found that approximately 68,000 kids, more than a quarter of all Puerto Rican students, were identified as needing help because of an emotional, mental or behavioral situation.
Puerto Rico plans to use part of the $6 billion in federal money to beef up existing school mental health teams, in part by hiring more than 420 school nurses and 110 school psychologists to address severe staff shortages among school health personnel.
Those hires may not be enough to soothe Dinelys' other big concerns around missing so much school. Dinelys wants to be a lawyer.
"I want to be someone in life," she said. "How will I pass my school exams and graduate if I can't go to school?"
How migration to the mainland impacts schools
Puerto Rico's student population has dropped by about half since 2006.
Ana Díaz, the third grade teacher, works at Delia Dávila de Cabán School in Toa Baja and has experienced the plummeting enrollment firsthand.
"Thirty kids are supposed to be able to fit in my classroom, but since Maria it's been significantly lower."
Five years ago, she had 28 students in her class. She started the last school year with just 14.
Díaz said many students have moved to the mainland, often to Florida to stay with relatives. But that's not an easy path — not only must they get accustomed to a new place, new friends and a new language, but the curriculum isn't aligned with that in Puerto Rico, and kids often struggle academically, she said. For those who return to the island, it's sometimes hard to readjust and catch up with what they've missed.
"The poor outcomes are super frustrating," said Díaz. "Because I see the potential in a lot of them."
This migration has implications beyond individual students. Fewer kids means under-enrolled schools, which has led to mass school closures, longer commutes to get to school, vacant buildings and teachers like Díaz getting reassigned.
"We will never give up"
Outside El Coquí, Principal Jorge Luis Colón González's school, thousands of yellow and white butterflies fluttered around like confetti. But despite the beauty around them, the area's residents exuded a palpable sense of anxiety, fearing the next natural disaster.
Locals are always on alert for warning signs: Here in southern Puerto Rico, if certain ocean birds are suddenly found inland, people believe another disaster is coming, Colón said. In the northern parts of the island, it's said that when the silvery underside of the yagrumo tree's leaves show, it means another hurricane is on its way.
But Colón was too busy to worry about the next natural disaster — he was focusing on that third of El Coquí's students who are struggling academically.
He said his resolve to keep working in education — and helping his students — is stronger than ever.
"When something isn't working, we change strategies," he said. "But we will never give up."
Edited by Nicole CohenTranslations by Ian PoeVisual design and development by LA JohnsonAudio stories produced by Christine Arrasmith, Iman Maani and Lauren Migaki
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