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Puerto Rico Department Of Education Seeks To Close The Digital Divide And Prepare Students For The Information Generation

by Lida Estela Ruaño

February 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Either you have it or you don't. If you have it, you'll probably succeed. If you don't, your chances are slim. What is it?


Much of the world's economy runs on information and much of that information is traded in digital form. Without mastery of information technology, individuals-and societies-are locked out of many opportunities to progress economically. The latest buzzword for the difference between the haves and the have nots is the "digital divide."

How do you cross the digital divide? How do you get modern information technology (IT) into the hands of people who need it?

Puerto Rico's Secretary of Education Victor Fajardo believes the answer is access. During his six-year tenure, the government has allotted close to $500 million to buy 120,000 computers for public school students, another 50,000 for administration and school laboratories, and 37,700 laptops for teachers.

As of December 1999, the stateside student to computer ratio stood at 12 to one. With Fajardo's ambitious plan, Puerto Rico's ratio would be six students per computer. And he's pushing to surpass even that ratio. The only thing stopping him is that companies can't deliver this many computers at once.

Fajardo sees IT replacing books within a short period of time-maybe five years-as the new technology takes over. Books will become reference materials and-as he sees it-a CD-ROM will be sufficient educational material for students.

Teachers are already assigning students more computer research, which helps accelerate their technological knowledge. Notwithstanding, during his tenure he has made a $222 million investment in books. The book deficit, which exists mainly because school children lose books that are given to them each term, will hopefully be considerably reduced with Fajardo's policy of making parents pay for lost books. If parents do not pay for lost books, the Department of Education (DOE) will take legal action to make them pay or to have the cost of replacing books deducted from the government assistance they may receive.

Fajardo is confident that a recent allocation of $78 million will supply all school children with books this year. About 1,500 teachers evaluated books last year, a process that took four months.

Fajardo anticipates that within a very short time, the system for ordering what students and teachers require will be fully computerized. "It will be a matter of a keystroke and a printout of whatever a student or teacher needs will come out immediately," he said.

There will be 84 technology centers throughout the island to service public school districts with photocopy machines, printers, and servers. "From these centers, for which we allocated $10 million, all materials will be sent to schools," Fajardo added.

Fajardo conceded there are still electrical infrastructure problems throughout the school system for hooking up computer equipment and there is no allocation for this, which means the money has to come from the general budget.

A $105 million preparation of school infrastructure for the computers to work adequately is 70% completed and should be finished by year's end, he said. Another $250 million was allocated to purchase the 120,000 computers.

Fajardo opened the bidding process for the computers with 15 local, stateside, and Japanese providers. Stateside and foreign bidders have local representatives. "No one company is large enough to supply that many computers at once," he said.

A stateside company, Garner Group, is DOE's consultant concerning computer purchases. The purchases will follow Office of Management & Budget (OMB) guidelines "but we will do the selecting and buying ourselves."

Delivery of the teachers' laptops began last month and should be completed in May.

Teachers' computers will run on a Microsoft platform. A Ponce firm, Orozco & Carmona, developed a school management software that it gave free of charge to the DOE. The program was later bought by the stateside firm Rock Sales, which intends to sell the program on the U.S. mainland. Orozco & Carmona has a $2.5 million contract with the DOE to prepare an administrative program tailor-made for the DOE.

"We will be the largest school district in the U.S. with computers," Fajardo said.

Teaching the teachers

The secretary is aware of critics who say that a large majority of the teachers and students to receive computers-or to have access to them-lack computer knowledge. A computer curriculum is being integrated through teacher training and tutorial information will be programmed into the computers.

Fajardo said that although there have been countless proposals for teacher computer training, he's confident his team can conduct in-house training. Centers will be set up throughout the island, which is divided into educational districts. Sets of trainers will prepare a group of 84 teachers per district, who in turn will train other teachers locally.

"We have to give teachers a chance. My goal is to have one technology coordinator per school and 15 technology coordinators per district. This will take a few years to achieve, but we already have teachers studying to earn bachelor's degrees in computer science," Fajardo said. He added that there are teachers who communicate with him through e-mail. Recently, Fajardo sent a trial e-mail to all schools which brought 400 e-mail responses in 58 minutes.

The system: from centralized to community

There are 759,035 students in the public school system of 1,538 community schools, 613,000 of which are regular daytime students. The rest include evening and Saturday students, prisoners, vocational school students, and special curriculum students. The DOE has a total budget of $2.2 billion, close to a third of the commonwealth government's budget.

A total of $1.2 billion will be spent on 197 new schools, which will be built by 2004. During the past six years, $292 million was spent building 58 new schools and expanding another 14. An additional $300 million was spent on school improvements.

"I see all this as the transformation of a system which for years had remained the same. At the conclusion of these eight years, the system will have been completely changed," Fajardo said. He added that the education system is a dynamic one, which must be renovated.

"All we have done is lay the foundation or infrastructure. We must look beyond the U.S. model to other countries, such as Israel and Spain, which have done so much in the area of school reform," he said, adding that U.S. students have not done very well on mathematics tests. Fajardo is confident technology will help Puerto Rico be ready to enter the global economy.

Of all the innovations brought about by Gov. Pedro Rossello's education reform, Fajardo considers community schools his best contribution. Before the reform, all power was centered at DOE headquarters in San Juan, which meant the Secretary of Education and his top team made all decisions-from school hours to curriculum, to when graduations would be held. Now a community board of directors in each school makes those decisions.

For example, each school has its own budget, purchases whatever it wants, and can receive donations. Potential teachers are interviewed at each school and are appointed by the school. "My job is to monitor, make sure schools have good management and that the education councils or community board of directors are well integrated," he said.

To help schools follow proper parameters, Fajardo created a controller's office at the DOE, which advises schools on proper ways to manage their budgets so audits by Puerto Rico's comptroller won't find fault with administrative practices.

The office was established as a result of meetings between Fajardo and Comptroller Manuel Diaz Saldaña. In general, Fajardo is satisfied with the results.

Other innovations

Fajardo is working on another innovation: providing community schools with debit cards. Again, he is acting on advice from Comptroller Diaz Saldaña. Debit cards would solve many irksome problems, such as keeping track of how well budgets at each school are being managed since banks will send account statements to DOE headquarters. Also, at the end of the fiscal year, schools would still have their accounts open, but the DOE would have to close each school's books.

If schools get behind in their purchase payments-affecting small vendors-merchants would immediately call DOE headquarters to complain. "With a debit card, these problems would end. A debit card pilot program is in place in Ponce and Caguas schools. As a result, both cities' schools have reduced costs because they have eliminated bureaucracies. Now, these schools make their purchases at their convenience, including at farmers markets," he said.

An innovation that has delighted students is the new school lunch menu, which includes pizzas, tacos, and burritos, the so-called junk food, which is what children and teenagers eat today.


Fajardo believes that an educational transformation implemented in just six years cannot be measured short-term. He added evaluating methods are not showing dramatic results, but the curve is starting to rise. "When we started the transformation process, the big changes occurred in 1995, then there was a drop in the curve."

For example, in 1994 when classes were switched to English, the curve-which he compares to stock investments curves-was flat. Fajardo was surprised to find many English teachers who lacked a license to teach the language. As a result, teachers were sent to study and 2,000 English teachers have been certified. In 1995, curriculum changes began and since 1996, the curve has started rising.

"All of our students improved in English, Spanish, mathematics, and science tests. College board exams also improved. Some students who have taken science and mathematics for six years have performed better than their counterparts in private schools.

"English used to be seen by students as a form of punishment. Now, students know that without knowledge of English and computers, they won't get a good job. I am confident that in the long run, year by year, tests will show students' improvement."

Three years ago, Fajardo started an all-English high school in Aguadilla with 60 co-ed students from all over the island who live on campus. This English immersion program requires students to speak English at all times, including during recreation. The 300 students who will graduate this summer are completely bilingual.

There are plans for a similar school in San Juan. Additionally, nine more bilingual schools have been installed-one in each region-where English is used "not merely in the English classes." Fajardo considers this program very successful. "We're offering a select group of public school students the same education available in the best private schools without the cost."

Fajardo feels fulfilled because by Dec. 31, when the Rossello administration ends its mandate, he will have fulfilled all 24 promises made by Gov. Rossello in the education arena. "We just need to round out details with some of those promises. My main dissatisfaction and concern is that parents still do not want to involve themselves with the necessary schoolwork. Last year, only 50% of the parents went to pick up their children's grades. There is a lack of commitment to education. If we could integrate parents to the school system, we'd have things well rounded out."

As far as he's concerned, his commitment ends Dec. 31. After that, it will be up to the candidate who wins the election to select his cabinet. "This is my world, and if I can contribute, I will definitely do so, but it's up to Carlos Pesquera [the New Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate] to decide.

Often mentioned as a possible political candidate for the legislature, Fajardo said he is not considering it. Instead he would like "to bring ideas that I was not able develop because they were not part of the governor's education platform to this education system and to the university. I will definitely remain in the educational field," said the secretary, who at 50, finished his doctoral degree in education and became a grandfather, contributing factors for why he considers himself completely fulfilled.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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