K-12

When the children leave: What’s left after a mass exodus of young people from Puerto Rico?

Hundreds of vacant schools span the island; residents are trying to take those buildings and remake them into community spaces

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schools in Puerto Rico

Johanna Dominguez rakes grass clippings in the backyard of the Pedro G. Goyco school.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On a searing hot day in February, Johanna Dominguez, was sitting outside the shuttered Pedro G. Goyco school in Santurce, a neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She wore a T-shirt with a black and white version of the Puerto Rican flag, a symbol on the island of mourning and resistance.

Dominguez had come to resist.

She attended Goyco as a child and she lived just a few blocks away when, in 2013, the Department of Education shut the school down. “I heard the last time the bell rang at this school,” she said in Spanish. “It made me very sad to see the school closed.”

Dominguez is part of a neighborhood activist group fighting to retake the abandoned school and turn it into a community arts and culture center. The building, named after a 19th-century doctor-abolitionist-journalist-politician, is immense, with arched doorways, rusting wrought-iron windows, and Grecian pillars. Dominguez spoke over the buzz of a generator as residents drifted in and out, carting in a power washer and hedge clippers. They come most Saturdays to clean up the building, little by little.

“It’s a precious, beautiful structure — an historic structure, it’s more than 100 years old,” she said. “But the truth is, it’s been so carelessly abandoned, just like our education system.”

schools in Puerto Rico

Sun shines into an empty hallway on the second level of the former Pedro G. Goyco school in San Juan.

Goyco is one of the more than 600 public schools in Puerto Rico that have closed in the past decade. The activists here are part of a growing group of residents mobilizing to turn the empty schools littered across the island into community centers. Many schools closed because of dwindling student populations. But, even as the number of students declined, the schools still served a secondary purpose as community hubs — hubs that residents are intent on getting back.

A mass exodus of the island’s residents, coupled with crippling debt, has fueled the closures. Half a million people have left Puerto Rico in the last decade, first after the government cut services in a scramble to try and pay back its $123 billion in debt and then in response to the catastrophe of Hurricane Maria. Compared to 2010, nearly 250,000 fewer children attend K-12 public schools in Puerto Rico today, a decline of 45 percent.

Taína Moscoso Arabía, a resident and long-time activist in Santurce, said the education department told residents in 2013 that Goyco was underperforming. Hoping to boost students’ academic performance, her organization, la Asociación de Residentes Machuchal Revive, or ARMaR, started an afterschool program for the children of Goyco. Activists with ARMaR — which means “assemble” — reasoned that if they could help students get their grades up, maybe the education department would keep the school open. “Instead of making [the school] effective, the solution was to close it? To us, this didn’t make sense,” she said in Spanish. “But we tried then — if this was the reason — to counteract it with a program.”

But in 2013 only 100 students were enrolled at Goyco, and nearly 2,000 fewer children lived in the 8.5-square-mile neighborhood than three years earlier.

Nilsa Otero Cordero, superintendent for San Juan schools, said in an emailed statement that Goyco’s low enrollment was the reason for the closure. Children from Goyco were sent to four different schools, but as the student population continued to decline, one of those schools was also closed last year, she said.

Moscoso Arabía said families struggled to find reliable and affordable transportation to their new schools. Many moved to different neighborhoods, and some eventually left for the continental United States.

Amidst cuts and closures, many teachers also left the island.

In 2009 Rossana Rodríguez-Sánchez was a middle school theater teacher in Puerto Rico. She was making $1,500 a month and buying all her own supplies. The school had always been strapped for resources, but she said the teaching conditions worsened after the Puerto Rican government passed Law 7, which enabled it to lay off nearly 25,000 public employees in an attempt to curb the island’s growing debt. Rodríguez-Sánchez kept her job, but her salary stayed the same as the number of students in her classroom ballooned.

schools in Puerto Rico

Chairs in front of a blackboard in one of the empty classrooms at the Goyco school in San Juan.

“I had like 40-something students. I didn’t have chairs for everybody. I had seventh, eighth and ninth [graders] all together in a classroom. It was insane.”

Rodríguez-Sánchez searched for a different job, but couldn’t find anything on the island. In October 2009 she found work in Chicago, as the resident art director of a youth theater organization. “When I left I had a lot of guilt because I left a school with an incredible group of teachers,” she said. “I was like, I get to go, and they don’t. They have to stay. And they have to work through those conditions.” As she spoke, she began to cry.

When she arrived at her new job, the contrast was stark. “When I got there, they gave me a credit card and I was like, ‘Wait … what?’ And they were like, ‘You can buy whatever you need to work with the young people.’”

She paused. “I just came from Puerto Rico. I didn’t have chairs for my students. And all of a sudden it was completely different. Right? It was investment. Like all of a sudden, you just could have anything that you need in order to make sure that your students are successful.”

The middle school she worked at in Puerto Rico — Alcides Figueroa — closed three years ago. “When I saw that the school was closed it just felt like, yeah, there was no way out,” she continued, “because they were not going to bring any more resources. It was just not going to happen. So, I mean, it was sad to see it close, but it was also expected.”

Research on the impact school closures have on children and communities isn’t definitive, but the effect appears to be increasingly negative for low-income children and communities. Nationwide and location-specific studies have shown that sometimes, children’s academic performance improves at their new schools. Other times, it declines. Sociologist Eve Ewing’s book, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard,” tells the story of the devastating mass closure of 50 schools in Chicago — schools largely attended by low-income African American students — in 2013. She describes what happens to communities after schools close as “institutional mourning.”

In the Afro-Puerto Rican town of Loíza, residents channeled that mourning into action. When their neighborhood school — Parcelas Suárez — closed seven years ago, the group Junta Comunitaria (Community Board in English) intervened. They feared that if the building sat vacant, people would start using it as a drug den. Junta Comunitaria competed with other organizations to take control of the school, and ultimately the city granted them access.

When they entered the school, they were relieved to find no drugs. Today, Parcelas Suárez is filled with community activities: health fairs, clothing swaps, adult education classes. Alexis Allende, a community leader, said that the people who still live in the town are primarily elderly and those with chronic health problems. The grassroots efforts in Loíza ensure the former school serves the needs of the residents who remain.

schools in Puerto Rico

A volunteer uses a power washer to clean one of the staircases at San Juan’s Pedro G. Goyco school.

The activists in Santurce hope to create a similar multi-use space in Goyco, but their concerns about the future of the school are nearly the opposite of those held by Loíza residents. They say gentrification has sped up in the past few years; the average income in Santurce rose by almost 20 percent between 2010 and 2017. Today, Goyco is sandwiched between a half-demolished building and an open-air restaurant that serves pricey poke bowls and espresso.

Tourists and wealthier Puerto Ricans from the nearby Condado neighborhood are the target clientele of the new businesses. Residents say old places where the community used to gather have mostly disappeared, which made the loss of the school even more acute.

“Calle Loíza has always been a commercial area, but it had businesses that served many of our needs,” Moscoso Arabía said. “Everything has been substituted by expensive restaurants that aren’t for the residents.”

Lydia Platón, another activist in the fight to transform Goyco, explained that by turning the school into a community arts and culture space, residents are “trying to revive something that our street has lost.” She added that preserving the neighborhood’s character is a key goal of their fight. “We need the building to not become a boutique hotel.”

City officials gave local activists control of the building a year ago. Until 2020, they’ll co-administer Goyco with the city of San Juan.

The activists all use the word “rescatar” to describe what they’re trying to do with Goyco. Rescatar can translate several ways, meaning to save, free, take back, reclaim, recover, and, of course, rescue. Even though the population of children in the neighborhood has declined, thousands of children still live in Santurce. Goyco no longer educates young people in the traditional sense, but the activists hope that if they can fill the school with programs for those who remain, they can keep the culture of the Calle Loíza community, despite the arrival of new, higher-income residents and the trendy businesses that cater to them, and convince more long-term residents to stay.

When asked about her hopes for Goyco, Dominguez, the former Goyco student, sat back. “Ay!” she said, smiling. She has lots of ideas: tutoring services, a library, a theater, a kitchen, case managers, social workers. A place where everybody feels welcome. “Yes,” she said, “this is my dream.”

This story about schools in Puerto Rico was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Question on your article about the schools closed in Puerto Rico> How can we help Johanna Dominguez turn the shuttered Pedro G. Goyco school in Santurce into a community center and library? Can you post links to any organization that is on the ground with her? As a retired librarian, I would love to get involved in stocking a library for the children.

- from Evelyn Kaehler, Aug 11, 2019