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Puerto Rico Students Still Suffer Effects of Hurricane Maria

EDUCATION | Oct 02, 2018

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 children also had new teachers and classmates to get used to.

Ana Maria Garcia Blanco is the director of Instituto Nueva Escuela, a non-profit group that works with schools all over Puerto Rico. She says parents have expressed concern that so many changes could harm the overall quality of students’ education.

“Parents are very concerned about overcrowded classrooms, and losing the experience they had before - where their children had more personal attention, and smaller classrooms and more attention from the teacher.”

Garcia Blanco said another parental concern she heard is that even more schools would be closed in the future in an effort to cut costs. “Those that had good schools are concerned about losing them,” she said.

Recently, the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico reported on how education was influenced by Hurricane Maria. The report was based on information collected from more than 500 Puerto Rican students aged 5-17. Nearly 80 percent of the students reported attending public school.

The study found that on average, students had missed 78 days during the 2017-2018 school year.

In addition, teachers reported observing different or unusual behaviors in 23 percent of students after the hurricane hit.

About 12 percent of students had problems concentrating, while about 10 percent had lower levels of academic performance. About eight percent showed a lack of interest in studying, while nearly six percent were observed to have other behavior issues.

Garcia Blanco says even some of the students who fled to the U.S. mainland after Hurricane Maria experienced problems. A big issue in some areas was a lack of bilingual education for Puerto Rican students, who are used to speaking Spanish in class.

“Although many of our children could handle English as a Second Language - or as a subject matter in the school program - they did not have the language skills to survive an English-only school in the states.”

In many cases, she says, Puerto Rican children were put in classes with students of lower grade levels because of their English skills alone.

“For example, a child that had finished the fifth grade here in school, they would put him or her in the fourth or third grade. So parents were very concerned with the self-esteem and the life of that child in schooling.”

At least 150,000 Puerto Ricans have fled the island since Hurricane Maria, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies reports. The center is part of Hunter College in New York State.

The center’s director said the large number shows the level of frustration people have with the government’s overall response.

Garcia Blanco says many Puerto Ricans have become deeply concerned that government decisions related to education were made without their input.

“They don’t feel they have been part of any of the decisions,” she said. “And they are worried that they won’t have anything to say and things will keep happening.”

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.