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Tough Test To Pass

Two-And-A-Half Years Into His Tenure, Puerto Rico Education Secretary Cesar Rey Craves Credit For Improving The Island’s Education System. While Some Teachers, Principals, And School Administrators Give Him An ‘A’ For Effort, Many Give Him An ‘F’ For Results


May 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Mastering the monster: Teacher vacancies, a deteriorating infrastructure, and textbook shortages plague many of Puerto Rico’s 1,538 public schools. . .and teachers want raises. Can this huge beast be tamed?

The problems of the island’s public education system are constantly making headlines. Teacher shortages, degenerating school facilities, and lack of textbooks are only some of the problems plaguing the island’s 1,538 public schools and ultimately affecting student performance. Although the current administration has implemented plans to improve the situation, many who work in the schools say the progress is slow.

However, the magnitude and complexity of the local public school system must be considered in making a fair assessment of the progress being made under Education Secretary Cesar Rey. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics, Puerto Rico ranks among the five-largest school districts in the nation. In 2000, New York City, which has the largest public education system in the nation, had 1.1 million students in 1,207 schools, whereas Puerto Rico had 612,725 students in 1,531 public schools.

Rey told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that his administration has been implementing projects to erase these problems and that there have already been significant achievements. Some principals, teachers, and others involved in the island’s public schools confirm Rey’s plans are being put into action, but many others say not enough is being accomplished. Some even warn of a crisis if the problems aren’t resolved.

Rey’s remedies: Myth or fact

Rey said that when he became Education secretary in early 2001, he saw a shortage of certified teachers, a poor infrastructure, a lack of textbooks, and more. He admitted that some of the problems were products of many years and even decades of neglect, and weren’t necessarily caused by the Rossello administration.

He also described some of the recent initiatives to solve the failings of the public school system. Many who work closely with the schools say the efforts are merely patching over the problems.


The first thing Rey noted upon taking office was an incredible shortage of teachers. "There were around 5,000 vacant positions as of January 2001," said Rey. According to information from the Education Department (ED), there are currently 44,566 teachers in local public schools. Rey couldn’t say what the total would be today if all vacancies were filled.

Rey launched a major recruiting campaign to alleviate the teacher shortage. He said he expects all positions to be filled by August, when the next academic year begins. "First of all, we made it possible for teachers looking for jobs to apply online," said Rey. "This was also done to reduce the long lines teachers had to wait in during the job application process."

The effort filled 3,000 teaching positions in only eight months (January to August 2001). This number includes more than 700 positions in subjects such as art and special education.

"The number of vacancies was reduced to 166 in August 2002 [from 2,000 the previous year]. At the moment, there are only 50 to 55 vacant positions and we expect to fill them all before the beginning of the new school year in August," said Rey.

Ana Torres, the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers’ (FMPR by its Spanish acronym) representative for the Caguas region, said that, "50 or 55 vacancies near the end of a school year isn’t something to be proud of. This means the ED knew these positions were vacant but didn’t fill them for a whole year, even though there are enough teachers to fill them." She said the ED often refrains from filling a vacancy to save money.

In fact, teachers at a public school in Santurce said their district director is actually reducing the number of teaching positions, and even eliminating English classes for kindergarten students. What’s more, the home economics teacher was fired and won’t be replaced.

"The truth of the matter is that there will be many vacancies in August because the process of assigning teachers to schools isn’t being done in a timely manner," said Felix Arroyo, director of FMPR’s Institution for Union Development.

Torres agreed. "I doubt that all vacancies will be filled in August because the schools’ organization process--the process that allows each school principal to know how many teachers will be needed for the school year--was supposed to begin in April but is only starting now, just when the school year is almost finished."

Not all the blame can be put on the ED, however. Jesus Soto, principal of Joaquin Vazquez Cruz School in Camuy, emphasized that school principals must solicit help from the department. "Many school principals don’t know the procedures they must follow to fill vacant positions, particularly when they have to fill positions left vacant by teachers who have been injured and have reported to the State Insurance Fund Corp. [SIF]," said Soto. "If they don’t know the procedures, they r won’t be able to get all the teachers they need."


Rey said he also noticed that many public school teachers weren’t certified in the subjects they were teaching. "When I began working here, there were 3,000 teachers who hadn’t received certification in the subjects they were teaching," he said. This is usually the case with English teachers.

Teacher certification is required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for funding of professional development programs; allows states and school districts to use their funds to promote revising teacher certification and licensing requirements, alternative certification, tenure reform, and merit-based teacher performance systems; and offers differential and bonus pay for teachers in high-need subject areas such as reading, math, and science and in high-poverty schools and districts. President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law on Jan. 8, 2002.

Rey has instituted courses in all 84 of the island’s school districts and expects to have those 3,000 teachers certified in two years. "We are offering certification courses during the evening and on Saturdays, free of charge," he said.

All of the principals, union leaders, and teachers interviewed by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS acknowledged that the current administration is providing the means for teachers to obtain certification in the subjects they teach. "It is true that the ED is offering classes on Saturdays and evenings so teachers can get their certification," said Dorothy Navas, principal of Elba Lugo Carrion School in Arecibo. "The government also pays for courses leading to professional development or certification. All our teachers have been certified."

"Whoever isn’t attending classes to obtain certification just doesn’t want to," said Soto. "Teacher certification is mandated by federal law and there are scholarships for certification courses at local universities." He noted that the teachers in his school who aren’t certified are about to obtain certification.

Soto added that it is hard to find certified teachers in the areas of special education, English, and home economics. "When there aren’t certified teachers to teach a particular subject, the ED refers to a database of uncertified teachers who have knowledge in that subject," said Eduardo Hernandez, principal of Bella Vista School in Hato Rey. "For example, a person who studied chemistry but doesn’t have a teacher certification may be allowed to teach science, and the ED will help him or her to obtain the certification."


Regarding the laptops given to public school teachers, Rey said the ED has developed sessions to instruct teachers on how to use them and put them to good use in and out of the classroom. "When I joined the ED, I noticed many of the laptops weren’t being used because the teachers didn’t know how to use them," said Rey. "To solve this problem, we began training sessions and, in two years, we have trained 23,000 teachers."

Jose Santana, interim director of the Education Department’s Information Systems Office, told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that 36,400 permanent teachers received laptops under the previous administration, at an investment of nearly $160 million.

He added that no computers have been given out under Rey’s administration of the ED, which has concentrated on training teachers. "There have been no more computers purchased," said Santana. "However, when teachers retire they return their laptops and we pass them to teachers who may have become permanent during this administration." He didn’t know the number of teachers who have become permanent since 2001.

Santana noted that computer courses for teachers began after the ED performed a survey in 2001 to assess how much teachers had learned from training sessions during the previous administration. "The results were disastrous," he said. "More than 92% of the teachers who had undergone training still didn’t know how to use a computer."

More than 400 teachers who already knew how to use computers were subsequently trained to tutor their peers. Santana expects that by 2004, 80% of the island’s teachers will be able to integrate computers into their daily tasks. "We have to realize, however, that there are many teachers who resist change and won’t want to use their computers," he said.

One principal from Bayamon, who preferred not to be identified, said that she never sees any teacher in her school using the computers. "The ED is doing its job, but the teachers aren’t using the tools given to them," she said.

FMPR’s Torres said that the training given to teachers under both the current and previous administrations was deficient, and many teachers only learned how to use their computers by signing up for classes. "Some just use their computers once in a while," she said. "They use it more as a word processor and don’t integrate it into their daily tasks."

"I can say that about 80% of the teachers don’t even use their laptops," said the federation’s Arroyo. "Yes, the ED is offering training, but teachers aren’t applying what they learn because they don’t use the computers. Many of them are used to working without computers and don’t want to alter their habits."

Soto’s experience is different. "My teachers are always using their computers. At least 80% of them are integrating the computer into their daily tasks, using it as their roll book, to design tests, and more," he said. "Again, the principals must take an active role in encouraging teachers to use these computers correctly."

Navas said the computer training offered under Rey has been much more practical. "The training we received under the previous administration was simple. There were teachers who didn’t even know how to turn on a computer, so the training was basic," she said. "Now the training goes deeper and shows teachers how to use the computers to make their jobs easier." She noted that each permanent teacher at her school has a computer.

School facilities

According to Rey, the infrastructure of many public schools was in a state of advanced deterioration when he entered office in 2001, but he had no idea how many. "Some of these schools were built in the 1950s, and many hadn’t been properly maintained," he said. Not only has this created unhealthy conditions for students, teachers, and other personnel, but it is harmful to school computers as well.

Although the previous administration invested heavily to equip schools with computers (including providing teachers with laptops), sources in some schools have said that once the computers in many public schools are turned on, all the lights go out. "Many of these schools are so old that they don’t have the electrical infrastructure to support these computers," said Rey.

Rey couldn’t say how many schools would get electrical substations to solve this problem, nor could the Office for the Improvement of Public Schools (OMEP by its Spanish acronym). Other sources in the ED said approximately 80 schools need substations.

"In January 2001, fewer than six schools had electrical substations," said Rey. "By 2004, however, two-thirds of the schools that need substations will have them." Rey said each substation costs $150,000.

"I know of two schools in Cidra that have had substations installed, but there is another school in that municipality that can’t use its computer classroom because it doesn’t have a substation," said Torres. "I even know of a school that was built recently and isn’t equipped to support computers."

Rey emphasized that since he has been in office, the ED has invested more than $24 million to purchase substations, to train teachers to use computers, to connect schools to the Internet, and more. "We have already connected more than 600 schools to the Internet," he said.

Santana put the number of schools connected to the Internet at 635. He said that the schools with an adequate electrical system have permanent labs, whereas other schools have mobile labs, each with 26 computers that can be battery-operated for up to four hours. "There are 103 schools that already have a lab and another 52 in the process of getting one," said Santana. These figures include both types of computer labs.

Arroyo questioned Rey’s assertion that more than 600 public schools on the island have Internet access. "If there are 600 schools connected to the Internet, I must have missed them. . . and I visit schools all over the island," he said.

"It is true that many schools have blackouts once they turn on their computers, but the ED is working hard to fix that. It happens because many schools in Puerto Rico are old," said Soto. "I have already been notified that an electrical substation will be installed in my school. The ED is improving the electrical infrastructure of the schools through OMEP, which is doing a great job."

The infrastructure problem goes beyond the need to prepare schools for the latest technologies. Schools also need to be painted, their bathrooms need to be fixed, and fences need to be installed or repaired, according to Rey. He said that almost $200 million has already been invested to renovate the schools and that he expects a total of about $600 million to have been spent by the end of Gov. Calderon’s term in 2004. He expects to invest $91 million on school renovation projects this year alone.

Most of those interviewed agreed that OMEP is doing a good job of improving school facilities. "I would like to mention the work of Miguel Rios at OMEP. He’s doing an admirable job," said Soto. "For example, I really need to expand this school to satisfy the demands of students. OMEP has already confirmed it will build 16 new classrooms." Rios quit his job a few days after Soto made this comment, one week before this article went to press.

"If OMEP is doing such a great job, I would like to know why Federico Degetau I School in Aibonito has been closed since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] shut it down over a year ago after finding asbestos there," said Torres. "I would also like to know why many students and staff of Luis Muñoz Rivera School in Cidra haven’t returned to the school. The part of the school that housed the fourth to sixth grades had a serious contamination problem and the students and teachers were split up and sent to other schools. Why hasn’t the school’s contamination problem been solved? They’ve had a whole semester to do so."

Arroyo said OMEP can’t solve many of the contamination problems. "The problem at many schools is that they were built in inappropriate places," he said. "For example, Fernando L. Malave School in Ponce, the largest elementary school on the island, is surrounded by an industrial park and a dumpsite. All of the contaminants produced by these facilities end up at the school, causing serious problems. OMEP can fix the schools, but not the buildings that surround the schools."

Miguel Carrasquillo, OMEP’s interim director, hadn’t been available for comment as of press time.


"Many schoolbooks, particularly science books, haven’t been revised in more than 10 years," said Rey. This means that many students have probably been studying outdated material. Rey also noted that teachers haven’t been involved in determining the content of textbooks for almost four decades. "The last time this was done was when the Community Education Division [Division de Educacion de la Comunidad] existed," he said.

According to the Office of Management & Budget, the government invested $3.5 million this year to purchase 140,000 textbooks.

"This school didn’t have enough books, and though we received more this year, they aren’t enough and students must share. They can’t take them home," said Navas. Hernandez, however, said his school has enough books and students do get to take them home. "I know this isn’t the case at all schools, especially high schools, where the books are usually more expensive," he said.

The unnamed principal from Bayamon said, "Yes, we do have enough books. Availability isn’t the problem at this school. The problem is that I can’t let students take the books home with them because they won’t return the books. If they do, the books are usually in poor condition."

Rey said the ED has also been working on updating the textbooks for all three academic levels: elementary, junior high, and high school. "We are encouraging teachers to author schoolbooks. In fact, some have already written books on values and literature," he said.

Soto confirmed that the ED is seeking more input from teachers and is offering workshops on how to write chapters on a single topic for students. "Teachers have been invited to evaluate the contents of books and to develop chapters for a textbook, but I haven’t seen any books written by teachers," said Arroyo.

Rey said he hopes the initiatives focusing on the facilities and staff of the island’s public schools will create an environment that is more conducive to learning. In the meantime, he is working to liberate the monies that were frozen because of the previous administration’s misappropriation of federal funds. "I expect the federal government will liberate those funds, which could amount to $90 million, by December," said Rey.

The Education Department announced a new curriculum for local public schools early in 2002, but it met with such strong opposition that it was sent back to the drawing board. Education Secretary Cesar Rey now says he expects to unveil the revised version by August, two-and-a-half years after taking office.

In March 2002, the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers and many others in the education field opposed the curriculum changes recommended by former Deputy Secretary of Education Ana Quintero on the grounds that they would increase the number of elective courses such as art and sports but reduce the number of credits in mandatory subjects such as English, Spanish, and math required for graduation.

Rey couldn’t say if the revised curriculum would differ much from that proposed last year. However, he did say that he expects the new curriculum to reduce the number of school dropouts.

He also told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS that the previous administration’s bilingual school program hasn’t been canceled, but is being modified to stress skills in English and Spanish. In addition, he is extending vocational studies to junior high school students.

"We are working to develop 84 language-intensive schools by August," said Rey. "These are schools that emphasize both English and Spanish and soon may offer instruction in other languages as well." Rey noted that for two years the Education Department (ED) has been offering French classes in some schools in what could be considered a pilot program. He couldn’t say, however, how many schools are trying out French as a third language.

The principals of some of the public schools considered bilingual by the previous administration say they are operating the same as always--stressing language skills in both English and Spanish.

However, New Progressive Party Sen. Kenneth McClintock believes there have been changes--all for the worse. "It is my understanding that instead of reinforcing language skills in English and Spanish, the bureaucratic system has been reinforced, making it very difficult for these schools to obtain materials or to have teachers assigned," he said.

"An emphasis on languages isn’t the same as having a bilingual curriculum," added McClintock. "The ED wants students to learn French and Portuguese when it should be concentrating on improving skills in the languages we use: English and Spanish." In fact, students’ verbal skills have dropped below the level seen in 1985, according to the College Board. Even is spite of this, the current administration closed down the English Immersion School in Aguadilla and scratched plans to add more.

Rey is also stressing vocational training. "Vocational education has been available only to high school students," he said. "Come August, however, there should be 40 schools offering vocational education at the junior high school and high school levels."

Five Largest School Districts in the Nation

Reporting District:

City / State / County / Students / Full-time equivalent teachers / 1998-99 completers / Schools

New York City Public Schools:

New York / NY / Kings / 1,075,710 / 63,989 / 40,690 / 1,207

Los Angeles United:

Los Angeles / CA / Los Angeles / 710,007 / 33,754 / 26,968 / 655

Puerto Rico Dept. of Education:

Hato Rey / PR / San Juan / 613,019 / 41,349 / 30,479 / 1,531

City of Chicago School District:

Chicago / IL / Cook / 431,750 / 23,455 / 16,195 / 597

Dade County School District:

Miami / FL / Dade / 360,136 / 18,104 / 14,951/ 350

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Dropout rates may be decreasing, but they are still alarming

Statistics from the Department of Education indicate that the percentage of students who dropped out of public schools in Puerto Rico in school year 1999-2000 was lower than the percentage that dropped out in 1995-1996. In fact, the dropout rate has been decreasing every year since 1995-1996. . .but not enough.

The dropout rate in Puerto Rico currently stands at about 42%. By comparison, slightly more than 10% of students on the U.S. mainland dropped out of school in 1999-2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Dropout Rates in Puerto Rico Schools

Academic year / Dropout rate (%)

1995-1996 / 50.2

1996-1997 / 49.5

1997-1998 / 48.6

1998-1999 / 47.6

1999-2000 / 42.4

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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