Education Week - February 14, 2018 - 16
Photograph by Swikar Patel/Education Week
FROM LEFT: A school bus traverses the
rural mountaintops of Utuado, Puerto Rico.
The view overlooking Lake Coanillas
in Utuado. The graffiti on the left says,
"We are in the next house up the hill."
A Pair of Rural Schools Struggle Back in Puerto Rico
One isolated, the other in town,
both have post-storm challenges
By Andrew Ujifusa
Utuado, Puerto Rico
Eric Collazo, a security guard at the Marta Lafontaine
elementary and middle school in an isolated corner of this
rural community, stares over the edge of a cliff-side road
at a house that fell down the mountain. Next to him, black
graffiti bleeding over a broken wedge of white stone declares that a family living on the edge of that road has
moved to a house nearby.
Sixty-one of his school's 137 students-44 percent-are
still absent months after his school reopened in the wake
of Hurricane Maria last fall, he said. The school has no
electricity, and it operates on a truncated schedule.
But Collazo is confident in Marta Lafontaine's ability
to bounce back and stick around, just like the family
that escaped death in the house below him.
"Hurricane Maria made our kids stronger," Collazo said.
"They've learned how to deal with tough situations."
Roughly 45 minutes away, English teacher Migdalia
Luciano López works on a half-day schedule at the Bernardo Gonzalez Colon School, on the town of Utuado's
main drag. The school has intermittent power and water.
16 | EDUCATION WEEK | February 14, 2018 | www.edweek.org
The bathrooms make López cringe. And some students
stay home when the school's lights don't flick on. Those
who do attend often struggle.
"They are very distracted. Sometimes when we don't have
power, it's dark in the classrooms. We don't have any air
conditioning," López said. "It is hot in the classroom. They
don't concentrate. And it is kind of hard for them."
The two schools are in one of the areas of Puerto Rico
hit hardest by the hurricane five months ago. The educators who staff both of them work hard, and carefully, with
Resilient, But Worried
To get to Marta Lafontaine since Hurricane Maria,
Collazo must wend his way along narrow and washedout roads shielded from the cliff, in some cases, by rough
concrete barriers. Traffic workers hold up school buses
and other vehicles so others can cross in a single line
on the narrow pathways above Lake Coanillas. Workers
for Puerto Rico's power authority scurry back and forth
across the dam at the lake, where a spillway drops hundreds of feet.
Collazo is an unelected mayor of the roadway, chattering
with-and at-many of those who drive or walk past. At
Marta Lafontaine, however, the staff stays away from one
subject few need reminding of: the storm.
"We try to get their minds off the hurricane and into
the school," said Mirelys Bilbraut, a social worker at
Marta Lafontaine. "We don't want to talk to them about
the hurricane. That's past, that's history. This is a new
beginning for us."
A chicken has taken a liking to one of the classrooms one
afternoon when Marta Lafontaine is closed. The school's
garden, which featured coffee plants and spinach, is now
overgrown even after the resumption of classes. For a
while after the hurricane, Collazo said, the school served
as a shelter for about 60 people.
But the covered basketball court is in good shape, and a
small greenhouse still stands.
Collazo knows what the school needs most of all, assuming it has power and water.
"We need all those people that fled to the United States
to come back," he said. "We love our school."
Yet he's still anxious. Collazo believes that the Puerto
Rico education department wants to keep his school open,
but that if it does, it might transfer many teachers to
other schools. Marta Lafontaine might live on, but in a
Officially, the majority of students and teachers who
left after Maria have come back to Bernardo Gonzalez
Colon from places like Florida and Texas, according to
López, who said there are 321 students and 29 teachers
at the school.
Compared with counterparts in other rural areas, the
school is lucky because it has power. A few blocks away,