UNDERSTANDING MISS KELEHER
by Efrain Suarez Arce
On February 6, 2018 Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher said the following to the El Nuevo Dia newspaper in an article called “EDUCACIÓN INICIARÍA CON 14 ESCUELAS CHARTER”
“…es importante que el país y las comunidades me escuchen. Esto se trata, no de los derechos del magisterio, se trata de opciones para las familias, para los estudiantes, y en la última década no lo hemos tenido. No ha sido justo y equitativo para la población”.
That same afternoon at around 4:00pm I was watching a local news story on Channel 4 where I saw Miss Keleher very clearly ask the following question:
“¿Cuando vamos a dejar de hablar de de los derechos del magisterio, y empezar a hablar de opciones para los estudiantes?”
As an English teacher I was so insulted and infuriated by this very public and unapologetic glove in the face that it is my belief that these very public expressions should not and will not go answered.
The funny part is that while US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has a BA in Business Economics and married into money, Miss Keleher has a BA in Political Science, a MS Ed in Psychological Services, an Ed.D in Educational Administration, Policy and Leadership, an MBA, is a Certified Project Management Professional from the Project Management Institute, has a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Certification and is a graduate of Stanford University’s Strategic Decision Making and Risk Management Program.
For Betsy DeVos, looking at Miss Keleher must be like staring into the Sun.
It’s not like she doesn’t know any better than DeVos. Miss Keleher has grace, elegance, wit, a sunny disposition and a warm smile that could charm you into jumping off a building. There is a reason why her critics have compared her to the Japanese super hero, Sailor Moon ,…
As a Sailor Moon fan who watched all 200 episodes of the series I understand the comparison. She DOES project a sort of romantic heroine, can-do-against-all odds vibe. Yes, she pisses them off THAT much and she’s THAT smart and THAT capable… WHETHER OR NOT THAT IS GOOD FOR STUDENTS AND TEACHERS REMAINS TO BE SEEN.
One thing is for sure… DO NOT make the mistake of mistaking Miss Keleher for Airheads like Betsy DeVos and Michelle Rhee, bullies like Chris Christie, duelists like Jose Arsenio Torres, arrogant intellectuals like Rafael Aragunde or political lackeys like Rafael Roman.
First we must direct ourselves to the question, “When are we going to stop talking about teacher’s rights and start talking about options for our students?”
I wholeheartedly agree with my friend and fellow blogger Michael Castro who believes that this is a “False Problem” conveniently created by school administrators – There is no conflict between the rights of teachers and the rights of students. As Michael stated: “everyone has rights”.
I’d like to quote something from an article by teacher Mitchell Robinson:
“If we want schools to be healthy, sustainable public institutions, every person who works in them must be treated with dignity and respect. Schools and teachers can be “student centered” and teachers can still be treated as professionals; paid a decent salary; receive good benefits; and be guaranteed excellent working conditions. Because teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
“The narrative that “it’s all about the kids” erases the role of teachers and other adults in the education profession and makes it easier to advance policies that deprofessionalize the teaching profession (see: Teach for America, charter schools, canned curriculum, scripted lesson plans.) It also makes it easier to pay teachers less money, since “they are not in it for the income; they are in it for the outcomes.””
Or this quote from another article by Joseph A. Ricciotti, Ed.D:
“The hypocrisy of so-called reformers such as Michelle Rhee and other non-educators in the so-called education reform movement is evident when they claim that they respect the work of teachers so long as teachers don’t have control of their work environment and, in essence, are powerless to fight back due to the stripping away of their collective bargaining rights.”
“These reformers, all of whom are non-educators, have been back peddling and broadcasting a wide assortment of low-level propaganda while blaming teachers for everything that is wrong with education. However, as Randy Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told her audience at their recent annual meeting, these so-called reformers “wouldn’t last 10 minutes in a classroom.”
“The so-called education reform movement in the country is based on two principles — testing and the dismantling of teaching empowerment. It is a movement lead primarily by non-educators such as Duncan, former D.C. chancellor Rhee, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, and politicians such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. According to the plethora of reports and analyses of the reform movement in the media, it has become quite evident that “reformers” such as Rhee are simply discredited hucksters for the corporate push to take over and profitize schools in this country. Their real motive and hidden agenda is to first destroy the teachers unions and then to take over public education with for-profit charter schools as their primary vehicle of reform.”
“The movement by the non-educators to use test scores as the be-all and end-all of education reform has been a disaster for both students and teachers. It is also demeaning of teachers. Certainly, common sense would dictate that you cannot ignore, for example, the role poverty plays in academic achievement. As long as poverty exists it will be an important factor, and in order to move forward as a nation, we must improve the schools as well as reduce poverty. ”
Miss Keleher’s emphasis on “school choice” in completely in sync with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ education policy, which is that the priority is expanding “school choice.” But what is that, exactly?
Miss Keleher’s office would probably say that the School Choice Movement seeks to expand alternatives to traditional public schools for children who have poor educational options in their neighborhoods and to give parents a choice in their children’s education. But her office is also aware that that using public funds to support individual choice of schools subverts the traditional public system, which educates the majority of school-age children, and that its ultimate goal is to privatize the most important civic institution in the country and the corner of democracy itself.
Secretary DeVos has been an important advocate for school choice for decades, spending her time and a great deal of money to promote choice options in her home state of Michigan, where she successfully helped expand charter schools but failed to get a voucher program passed. She has created and run organizations that have lobbied for school choice around the country.
When Miss Keleher states in her interview with El Nuevo Dia that Charter Schools make the island eligible for more education funding, we should be clear and state that Secretary DeVos’s Education Department is planning to spend an unprecedented amount of public money — well over $1 billion — to expand school choice in the 2018 proposed budget, and it is said to be considering other ways to promote choice. DeVos has not been shy about publicly expressing disdain for the traditional public school system by calling it a “dead end” and a “monopoly.”
The trouble is that
1) The Puerto Rico public education system cannot be run like a business because students are not products. This has become evident in other states where Charters have been adopted
2) Traditional schools must accept all children but charter schools won’t, and traditional systems will be hurt when financial resources are diverted from districts that are chronically underfunded.
3) Charter Schools in general are not accountable to the public the same way traditional public schools are and oversight is lax in many states, leading to financial and other scandals.
4) The reason many charter supporters view charters as an option parents should have is that they don’t want to talk about the original reason that Charter Schools were created: to operate outside the traditional public school districts to give them flexibility to try out new things and serve as laboratories. The idea was that they would provide competition to traditional schools and prompt them to improve.
5) Many charter schools operate differently from traditional public schools but not necessarily in the way people think. They counsel out students who can’t keep up with the school’s program, for example, or accepting fewer students with severe disabilities than do traditional public schools. The puertorrican term for this is “competencia desleal”.
6) According to Sociologist Christopher Bonastia in his 2015 article “The Racist History of the Charter School Movement”, the idea of offering public funds to private entrepreneurs has historical roots in white resistance to school desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The desired outcome at the time was few or, better yet, no black students in white schools. In Prince Edward County, Virginia, one of the five cases decided in Brown, segregationist whites sought to outwit integration by directing taxpayer funds to segregated private schools.
7) Meanwhile, in more subtle attempts to avoid desegregation, states and localities also enacted “freedom of choice” plans that typically allowed white students to transfer out of desegregated schools, but forced black students to clear numerous administrative hurdles and, not infrequently, withstand harassment from teachers and students if they entered formerly all-white schools. When some segregationists began to acknowledge that separate black and white schools were no longer viable legally, they sought other means to eliminate “undesirables” such as letting them in and then chasing them out by setting high academic standards they could not maintain.
8) Modern day Charter school operators (like health insurers who seek to exclude potentially costly applicants) have developed methods to screen out applicants who are likely to affect overall test scores. Sifting mechanisms may include interviews with parents (since parents of low-performing students are less likely to show up for the interview), essays by students, and letters of recommendation and scrutiny of attendance records. Low-achieving students enrolled in charters can, for example, be recommended for special education programs that the school lacks, thus forcing their transfer back to a traditional public school. (More brazenly, some schools have experienced, and perhaps even encouraged, rampant cheating on standardized tests.)
9) Some charter schools also foster religious segmentation. Once upon a time there was a Michigan charter school, Noah Webster Academy that received public funds to establish a computer network to educate a group of Christian home-schooled students. In Minnesota, a Muslim group established the Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy, a publicly funded charter school designed to teach Islamic history and culture. In 2007, in Florida, an Orthodox rabbi established a Hebrew-language charter school serving kosher lunches and teaching Jewish culture and history. And the Archdiocese of Washington has proposed converting eight Roman Catholic schools into publicly funded charter schools. While Catholic officials have said they would strip explicit religious instruction from the curriculum, the conservatively oriented Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Education Gadfly argues that “maybe it would be better still if they could remain religious—and still go charter.” Some Charter Schools will at some point inevitably violate the fundamental constitutional principle of separation between church and state, just wait and see.
10) Many charter schools also simply fail to address another form of segregation: by income. Charter schools, as schools of choice, have the potential to attack what many educators both here in Puerto Rico and the upper 48 states regard as the source of educational inequality: the concentration of poor children. While a small number of highly publicized charter schools have done well despite concentrations of poverty, the vast majority have not. Most high-poverty charter schools, like most high-poverty regular public schools, simply fail to produce high levels of academic performance.
From an administrative point of view, teachers who are treated with dignity, respect, fairness and compassion, who don’t have to hold down a second job to make ends meet, who don’t live in fear of retiring into poverty – These teachers will produce more and more consistently than teachers who are overworked, underpaid, overwhelmed by paperwork, brutalized by administrative procedures designed to kick them to the curb and intimidated by the kaleidoscope of Common Core Standards, Value Added Measurement, Standardized Testing and “Teaching to the Test”.
Teachers in Puerto Rico face get a lot of public hostility, such as radio and TV personality Jay Fonseca, who just can’t shut up about teachers, their unions, their vacations and their tenure.
Today, the AMPR and other teacher unions in Puerto Rico continue to play important roles in protecting the rights of teachers, especially in the current climate of Charter Schools and
There’s a common view among corporate-style reformers and certain radio and TV personalities today that the way to fix low-performing schools is to install a Principal who rules with an iron fist. Many principals have little classroom experience, and lack the judgment, knowledge, common sense and/or iteligence to make wise decisions about curriculum and instruction or to evaluate seasoned teachers. We also see principals use techniques like “Mobbing” and “Gas-Lighting” and the French revolution style application of “Institutional Abuse” laws and administrative procedures. 
When experienced teachers must work under the control of an inexperienced, vindictive or just plain stupid principal, they need the protection of their union against arbitrary and unwise decisions.
21 de marzo de 2018
KELEHER DESCARTA RENUNCIAR A EDUCACIÓN
Yaritza Rivera Clemente, EL VOCERO
“No tengo ninguna intención de presentar la renuncia”. Con esta expresión la secretaria de Educación, Julia Keleher, despachó ayer los rumores que han comenzado a surgir dentro de dicha agencia sobre que estaría presentando la dimisión a su cargo en las próximas semanas.
Dos fuentes internas de Educación aseguraron, por separado, que Keleher abandonaría su posición luego de que la Asamblea Legislativa aprobara el proyecto de reforma educativa y el gobernador Ricardo Rosselló estampe su firma en la medida.
“Estoy comprometida con el propósito de asegurar que los jóvenes de Puerto Rico tengan un sistema de educación pública que realmente les permita desarrollarse y desarrollar sus sueños. Yo vine para eso y entendí desde un principio que era un reto, que no iba a ser tan fácil, pero estoy comprometida hasta el final porque se trata del futuro de una generación y uno no puede dejarlo tan fácil”, dijo Keleher en entrevista con EL VOCERO.
“Es difícil lo que estamos tratando de hacer, pero lo que se ve es que el cambio se está dando porque uno ve la reacción y el cambio es así. Uno aprende. Uno crece a través del camino”, agregó la funcionaria.
De otro lado, Keleher reaccionó a la aprobación del proyecto de ley que viabiliza la reforma educativa, el cual fue enviado a La Fortaleza para la firma del primer ejecutivo. “Me alegra mucho que haya habido tanto espacio para recoger todas las sugerencias y atender todas las inquietudes de las personas”, dijo la secretaria, quien agregó que la medida “mayormente refleja todo lo que se quería implementar”.
Asimismo, se mostró satisfecha con el trabajo realizado en la Legislatura y afirmó que no “tiene ningún problema” con la enmienda que le incluyó Senado para garantizar por escrito todos los derechos adquiridos del magisterio.
La medida legislativa establece, entre otras cosas, que se va a aprobar el Seguro Social para nuevos maestros como parte de su compensación y beneficios; que se mantiene en un 3%, o 9,900 alumnos anuales, el otorgamiento de certificados bajo el programa de libre selección de escuelas o vales educativos y que las escuelas chárter no pueden ser más del 10% del número total de planteles en funciones para agosto de 2018.
De hecho, afirmó que “nadie va a tratar de tomar decisión con mucha prisa para tratar de llegar a un 10% (en la implementación de las escuelas chárter)”. Aseguró que el proceso para integrar ese modelo al nuevo sistema educativo sería uno totalmente abierto, en el que incluso se estarían publicando comentarios en el portal digital de la agencia.
Sobre la eliminación de toda referencia al término equidad de género y de la integración de un currículo de educación sexual en las escuelas, Keleher comentó: “Entiendo que la secretaria debe implementar lo que es la política pública del gobierno, pero creo que es importante asegurar la equidad y el derecho humano entre un hombre y una mujer. Creo que es bien importante la idea de que todos somos iguales y que todos nos merecemos el mismo trato”.
“Yo tengo la esperanza de que cuando se comience a implementar todo esto los maestros y los directores de escuela puedan ver cómo, a través de la reforma, estamos buscando mejorar no solo las condiciones laborales que ellos tienen, sino el tratamiento hacia ellos como profesionales, de una manera que funcione mejor el sistema para que ellos no tengan que luchar tanto para proteger sus derechos adquiridos. Buscamos un ambiente más amigable y cómodo para ellos”, abundó la secretaria.
A pesar de que no todo el magisterio ha expresado su apoyo al proyecto de reforma educativa y se organizó un paro en repudio a dicha medida, Keleher comentó:
“De mi parte no hay animosidad, no hay rencor, no estoy ofendida. No hay nada negativo hacia los maestros y la Asociación (de Maestros). Las puertas siguen estando abiertas con un espíritu de colaboración. Yo siempre he entendido la perspectiva de ellos. No he tenido nada en contra de ellos y entiendo que hay cosas filosóficas y de los sindicatos que ellos tienen que defender. Por diferir en algunos asuntos no nos convierte en enemigos”.
Tras la aprobación de la medida, aseguró tener como prioridad trabajar en la correcta implantación de la reforma, así como también de la tecnología, los recursos humanos, el presupuesto, los asuntos académicos, la compra de materiales, de programas como el bilingüismo, el manejo de fondos federales, la evaluación de los maestros y establecer las nuevas regiones educativas.
APRIL 2, 2019
Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Steps Down After Divisive Tenure
Striking defiant tone, Julia Keleher defends her tenure in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico’s recently departed Secretary of Education defended her tumultuous tenure in a defiant speech at an education conference Friday.
Keleher said she closed schools because “somebody had to be the responsible adult in the room.” She accumulated enemies by rejecting how the island’s school system used to work, she said. And she had been affected by online criticism tagged #juliagohome, she told the crowd.
“Has anyone ever felt like a minority in a situation? By your voice, by your demographic? That feeling of ‘other’ is difficult,” said Keleher, who is not from Puerto Rico.
The unusually charged speech, at a Yale School of Management education conference, came after Keleher announced she would step down earlier this week — and included her acknowledging an investigation into some element of her or the department’s work.
As superintendent, Keleher drew resistance for her actions in the wake of two hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico in 2017 and pushed 130,000 residents to leave the island, causing student enrollment to plummet. She closed nearly a quarter of Puerto Rico’s public schools and opened the island’s first charter school. Two more charters are slated to open next school year, when a private school voucher program is also set to begin.
Frustration followed Keleher to New Haven. A letter criticizing her policies (and her invitation by conference organizers) circulated at the event.
“Rather than overseeing plans that would put the public school system onto a path of genuine recovery and growth, you pushed the creation of charter schools,” said the letter, signed by Yale junior Adriana Colón-Adorno. “You have relied on the emigration of families after Hurricanes Maria and Irma to justify your closing of schools, but basic logic dictates that closing schools would only worsen that the conditions that made them leave in the first place.”
Keleher referenced the criticism before launching into a defense of her work. “If this letter wasn’t about me, it was about you, how would you feel?” she said.
She described the Puerto Rican school system as almost dystopian, lacking basic infrastructure and rife with corruption and patronage before she arrived. Decisions not to award contracts to political campaign workers, she said, earned her “a very vast and powerful group of enemies.”
Her voice wavered as she described visiting a classroom where a teacher was working in the dark. She was trying to change conditions in schools that many in Puerto Rico had to come to accept, she said.
“Are you familiar with New York City, the broken window concept? What happens over time when people just see the broken window? There becomes a state of acceptance,” she said, referring to a controversial policing theory. “In an environment where there aren’t books, and there aren’t teachers, and the buildings are falling down. And that’s just how it is.”
The decision to close schools, she said, was a challenging but necessary one because Puerto Rico had not adjusted in response to long-running declines in school enrollment that were exacerbated by the hurricanes.
“I regret the pain that that caused communities,” she said. “But somebody had to be the responsible adult in the room. They had to do what people hadn’t done in a decade.”
Keleher has also pointed to the additional resources schools have received, like nurses and laptops, as well as planned teacher pay raises.
That hasn’t been enough for some teachers and families in Puerto Rico. At one point during her tenure, teachers in San Juan walked out in protest of Keleher’s policies. The school closures left some parents worried about students’ commutes, NPR reported, and the union attempted unsuccessfully to try to stop new charter and voucher programs.
“During her tenure, Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher treated educators and parents as a speed bump, implementing policies that created chaos and instability for the island’s 320,000 schoolchildren,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Puerto Rico’s teachers union chief Aida Diaz said in a statement Tuesday.
When Keleher announced Monday that she was stepping down, she said she planned to stay on as an adviser to the education department. That changed Thursday, as reports surfaced of a federal investigation into department contracts and Keleher said she would drop her advising role.
At the Yale event, Keleher said that it was the right time to turn power over to someone better at handling nitty-gritty details, now that sweeping changes are in the works.
“It was the appropriate time for someone to take on the leadership role who will be responsible for implementation,” she said.
Keleher also referenced an investigation into technology spending.
“We made an investment of $300 million in technology, because not all schools were online, so kids actually didn’t have access to the Internet,” she said. “The headline today is, ‘They demand an investigation into the use of federal funds to buy computers’ Look, we used a rubric. It was a rigorous process … There was nothing fraudulent or illegal or incorrect about how that procurement process happened.”
“I have no comment about the investigation,” Keleher said. “Investigations have been happening in the Department of Education since forever. So I think they need to be able to run their course.”
A Yale Student’s Letter to Julia Keleher and the Yale Education Leadership Conference
April 5, 2019[a]
To the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference:
I am disappointed, yet not surprised, that this year’s Education Leadership Conference has chosen to host Julia Keleher as one of their keynote speakers for leaders in education reform. Keleher’s “reform” of the Puerto Rican public education system does not serve to solve any of its problems but rather to mutilate it in order to benefit all but those Puerto Rican citizens who actually rely on high quality public schools.
This celebration of Keleher’s work only displays the way in which members of elite institutions like the Yale School of Management can be so blind to the reality and context of life in Puerto Rico.
To Former Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education Julia Keleher:
During your time as the Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Education, you promoted the closing of over 400 public schools. You boasted that schools were mostly back to normal just weeks after Hurricane Maria, despite the fact that many schools still did not have power well into January of 2018.
Rather than overseeing plans that would put the public school system onto a path of genuine recovery and growth, you pushed the creation of charter schools. In addition to this quasi-privatization of public schools, you blatantly spoke out about your intentions to meld schools with the private sector. You even boldly stated that students in Culebra should start being trained to be streamlined into the tourism industry, as if tourism should be prioritized as the only viable option for young Puerto Rican students as they grow up.
Even now as you step down from your former position, you will receive a salary of $250,000 just to serve as an advisor the education department of Puerto Rico. This is more than 10 times the average salary of a teacher in Puerto Rico, which only further highlights the longstanding disrespect you have exemplified for the public school teachers of PR. You have described unionized teachers engaging in peaceful civil disobedience as “violent” in attempts to invalidate their defense of an uncompromised public school system. Teacher unions have been part of the foundation of Puerto Rican cultural preservation, as they were key activists in the fight against English-only education efforts in the 1900’s and for keeping Puerto Rican history and cultural traditions in curriculum.
PR’s community of teachers has already been damaged by recent anti-union legislation, and your proposed charter schools would only further harm it as teachers and locally elected school board members are largely left out of their decision making process. These charter schools which you proudly explain are schools that use government funding yet are run privately (or in other words, not run democratically) further expose the colonial government practices already present in PR, which you uphold.
Beyond the political tone-deafness of the “reform” you have implemented in Puerto Rico, your sureness of their success only speaks to how little you understand life in Puerto Rico and the students you are meant to serve. PR residents know how long it can take to travel around the island due to road congestion and a lack of reliable public transportation. Forcing teachers to work 2 hours away from home through your merging of public schools is hugely disrespectful to their time and value. Working parents also cannot just drive their children to far away schools when buses are not available. Furthermore, the higher number of buses that would be required to transport students to school would only worsen the air pollution which causes Puerto Rican children to suffer some of the highest rates of asthma in the world.
Charter schools also consistently underserve and exclude students with special education needs, which account for more than 40% of all Puerto Rican students. This must not be ignored in plans for PR’s public school system.
The island’s limited funds for public education should be used to repair and update existing school buildings, not spent on unnecessary and detrimental charter schools and temporary trailers. You have relied on the emigration of families after Hurricanes Maria and Irma to justify your closing of schools, but basic logic dictates that closing schools would only worsen the conditions that made them leave in the first place. For many Puerto Ricans, moving to the mainland US was not meant to be a permanent relocation, but your “reform” only makes it harder for families to eventually return to their homes. You are closing pillars of local communities, which in turn weakens the entire island’s social and economic progress.
Though perhaps said jokingly, perhaps said in attempts to ameliorate the image of a non-Puerto Rican undermining the island’s public school system, you have referred to Puerto Rico as your “adopted land.” Though being Puerto Rican is not just about where you live and the diaspora is an integral part of the community, a fundamental part of Puerto Rican identity is a deep shared history of struggle and resilience, which you can never be a part of. This is especially true with your commitment to your role remaining outside of the sphere of the island’s politics. While the support of public education should always be bipartisan, no current administrative position in Puerto Rico is apolitical, especially not under the undemocratically appointed fiscal control board of PROMESA.
Yale College Class of 2020
Julia Keleher Offered Big Plans to Reform Puerto Rico’s Storm-Battered Schools. She Left Her Post Playing Defense
Yale, Puerto Rico and the Discourse of Benevolent Colonialism
Keleher had recently resigned under the shadow of a federal government investigation into the irregularity of contracts concluded during her administration, a period characterized by an extreme reduction of the number of public schools and a move toward the privatization of education on the island.
She told her audience at Yale that she regretted the pain that many communities suffered from the closing of so many schools, but that “someone had to be the adult in the room.”
This is a discourse of “the white man’s burden” that sadly repeats the way in which the U.S. has viewed its “benevolence” toward Puerto Rico since “we” occupied the island.
In 1899 following the worst hurricane on the island prior to Maria in 2017, Major John Hoff, head of the U.S. relief effort, put it clearly: “We will keep them alive; will lead them slowly gently toward the light, and finally in half a hundred years they will catch the first glimmering ray which will show them what our standards are and what we wish theirs to be.”
These are the attitudes of “tutelary colonialism” that have been recurrent in our relationship with the island in particular, and with Latin America in general. One need only examine the current tweets of the President and the attitude of Congress in the previous administration toward the island’s fiscal and humanitarian crisis to see that our policies continue to be shaped by a combination of depreciation of the Puerto Ricans tinged with racism, corruption both here and on the island, and, as Keleher’s policies represented, a kind of “disaster capitalism” aimed at reducing the public sector of education. Even within a capitalist economy education, we might remember, is not simply a matter of profit and loss. It is an investment in long term returns.
That Ms. Keleher was able to use Yale as a platform for her program and attitudes (her picture speaking from a podium surrounded by Yale logos appeared prominently in El Nuevo Día, San Juan’s most popular daily paper) was particularly disheartening given Yale’s long and positive association with the island where former faculty like the Historian Hiram Bingham (who as Senator led a Congressional committee that advocated extensive relief to the island in 1928) or the anthropologist Sidney Mintz (whose extensive personal library was recently donated to the University of Puerto Rico) represented a profound concern for the island and a respect for its culture and its people.
When I became Puerto Rico’s education chief, I wasn’t prepared for the level of poverty I’d see. Now, I want others to pay attention.
BY JULIA KELEHER – MAY 29, 2019
Shortly after assuming the responsibilities of Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Education in 2017, I was confronted with the harsh reality of how students and families on the island are affected by poverty.
During school visits in those early months, I met hundreds of smart, hardworking students who lacked notebooks, pencils, or other basic supplies. Many were missing parts of their uniforms, and others wore uniforms that were obviously too big or too small. Teachers and principals would identify students who, more days than not, showed up to school hungry and tired. One school found that over half of its entering first-graders had undiagnosed vision problems.
I remember asking myself, how did we get to a point where this level of need was the norm?
I’ll be honest: I was often taken aback, even after a career working in under-resourced schools and communities. And that was before Hurricane Maria, whose devastating impact was not first felt until September 2017.
When Hurricane Maria passed over the island, the most vulnerable segments of Puerto Rico were disproportionately impacted by the devastation. Today, the struggles of those families continue, lost in the swirl of other breaking news.
I resigned as secretary a few months ago. But I am committed to getting more people to realize our moral imperative to help Puerto Rico’s young people. I worry that, instead, there will be a collective failure to act.
Let me remind you of the stakes. A 2016 government report found that nearly 1.5 million Puerto Ricans were living beneath the federal poverty level. In 2017, the share of eighth-graders who demonstrated proficiency on the federal NAEP math assessment rounded to 0 percent.
Since the storm, schools and government agencies have worked to help families address their immediate needs, though a sizeable number of children still lack adequate food, clothing, and shelter. This leaves little opportunity for enrichment experiences that would enhance children’s well-being, personal development, and cognitive growth. And even if those opportunities could be provided, many children and their families struggle to recover psychologically from Hurricane Maria. Research continues to show high rates of post traumatic stress among the island’s school-age population.
Puerto Rican educators have long been working hard to educate children living in poverty. Teachers, principals, and administrators understand how students’ living conditions can compromise their growth, development, and readiness to learn.
In the face of the obvious lack of funding, I watched caring and committed teachers and principals go the extra mile. Schools organized donation drives, connected families to outside resources, and developed creative ways to compensate for a lack of material resources. Puerto Rico’s incredible cadre of school social workers are exceptionally skilled at helping families navigate crises. They work tirelessly in schools across the island, to deliver customized workshops that teach teachers, students, and families strategies for dealing with post-traumatic stress.
It was amazing to witness how these individuals, who had been impacted by Hurricane Maria themselves, dedicated their energies to ensuring school communities could become more resilient.
But their efforts could only go so far. During my tenure as secretary, we worked to improve the quality of educational programs and support services available to students. The truth is there were simply not enough resources available.
Every year, as we prepared the agency budget request, I found myself frustrated by funding limitations and government-wide fiscal constraints. With its current levels of funding, the Department of Education cannot meet the needs of its students.
I accepted the challenge of leading public education in Puerto Rico because I believed I could make a difference. I wish we would have been able to do much more to address the effects of poverty on students’ growth and development.
Now, I hope federal funding for desperately-needed health and nutrition assistance programs will grow. I hope future school budgets are sufficient to ensure no student goes without notebooks, pencils, a well-fitting uniform, and a counselor who can guide them as they make academic and career choices.
Poverty in Puerto Rico should concern all Americans — including those who advocate on the mainland for better schools and antipoverty programs. Puerto Rican children are American children, and they have every right to realize their dreams of becoming our next entrepreneurs, scientists, athletes, leaders, and stars.