The tale of two schools and their recovery from Hurricane Maria

CAROLINA, Puerto Rico – The school bell rings to end the day’s activities at the very busy campus of Dr. Modesto Rivera, Rivera Elementary School, yet, for principal Migdalia Nieves, the day is far from over.

As she waves goodbye to her students heading through the school’s front gates, she quickly returns to her office to continue her work, checking on the progress of her students after missing weeks of school due to Hurricane Maria.

When Maria plowed through Puerto Rico back on September 16, 2017, schools all over the island braced for the impact this storm would have on their buildings, faculty and students.

However, they did not imagine the magnitude of challenges they would face to get their schools reopened, staffed, and classrooms filled with returning students.

In the days leading up to the disaster, schools all over the island prepped for the arrival and inevitable destruction that was to come with nothing to stop it.

In the months to follow, two schools would face numerous challenges as they worked to get their students moving past the difficult consequences of Maria.


Dr. Modesto Rivera Rivera is an elementary school in the small town of Carolina, Puerto Rico. Painted yellow and trimmed in turquoise, in the typical fashion of schools found all over the island, yet under the roof of this school organized chaos best describes the scene.

Six months after the Hurricane, Principal Migdalia Nieves, does what she can to help get her school and her students back on track.

She has faced a very difficult situation where after a month upon returning to her school, Maria Esposito Elementary School, The Puerto Rican Department of Education chose to close her school down, forcing her to leave and take up the directorship of Modesto.

“This school didn’t suffer,” Nieves said pointing down to her desk in her office at Modesto. “My school suffered. I mean the one I came from suffered, because it was a poor neighborhood,” Nieves said.

Although exact numbers are still unclear, according to a recent report, it is estimated that 1 in 11 students (about 26,000) have left Puerto Rico for the United States.

With the ongoing debt crisis in the U.S. territory, at the end of the 2017 school year last May, The Department of Education was forced to close 167 schools.

They will now close even more.

Maria Esposito Elementary School is where Nieves was directing before coming to Modesto.

Her change to Modesto was sudden and abrupt.

Nieves faced a dilemma that many schools around Puerto Rico had to deal with. Leaving their own school to consolidate with another after the effects of Maria. In her case, the damage to the school building and the loss of many students who left the island forced her to move into the current building she currently directs.

The transition is what proved the most difficult during this time. “Look, I’m going to be very sincere,” Nieves says with determination in her face. “It could have been better.”

“If there had been good communication, in many aspects, it could have been better. Making such a sudden change, there wasn’t the time to discuss it.”

Nieves was given a few days’ notice that she would be forced to leave her school. She was still dealing with the rumors that many of her students, up to 50 had left the island altogether. Conflicting information poured in about her own staff. In the end, 30 teachers did not return.

Zilka Figueroa was teaching at Esposito before following Nieves to Modesto. “My room is in a closet,” she explains as she struggles to open the door to her music room.

Figueroa teaches general music and recorders to the fourth and fifth graders of Modesto.

“We are in the music room for the hand bells,” Figueroa says as she looks around the tiny room. “The regular music classes I give in their own rooms and they stay in their room and I go over there.”

Indeed, the room is small. Dim, from the half-way closed shutters with books and materials strewn across a long table set off to the side and hand bells laid out over another attached to it.

When the closing of Esposito was announced, there was never any doubt that Figueroa would join Nieves as she transitioned to Modesto. Figueroa recalls the difficult transition period.

“Maria Esposito was closed for two months,” says Figueroa. “First the Hurricane hit, then we needed to wait for the department to give us permission to start. One month after school started again, they told us they were closing Esposito and moving us to join another school.”

As challenge after challenge began to pile on each other, the most difficult task proved getting their students back on track. They were months behind and slipped further away from the standard of excellence Nieves was accustomed to.

“Before the hurricane, well at least at the school that I come from, we achieved academic excellence,” Nieves says. “Sadly, we just achieved it this year, and now that my school is closed, that’s what I want again…excellence.”

“I want to take the children to their maximum potential,” Nieves continues. “So they can be productive children. I don’t want to just see them trying to be rescued from so many problems in the streets, but to see something positive.”

Nieves is hopeful about her future, the future of the students and of her school.

“Well look, I’ve seen that they have a great desire to continue,” Nieves says, reflecting on her students.

“Yes, they have been affected, because there are many of them who don’t have a home. Many of them lost their roof, or even their fathers who left the island.”

The Puerto Rican Department of Education is allocating funding for each school, however in situations like Modesto, there simply is not enough to go around.

“They are working on it now because, the Departamento isn’t clear which school we are,” Figueroa says. “Is it Modesto, or Maria Esposito? Maria Esposito is now closed so they think they just need the funding for the Modesto kids, but they are not counting that we have two schools here.”

With hundreds of schools vying for assistance from the Department of Educations, Modesto does what it can to get their voices heard among the crowd of many.

“It’s challenging,” Figueroa continues, “So, we have to always explain, hey, we have two schools here, so we need maybe more food for the kids for lunch or maybe more books or chairs for them.”

The situation they find themselves in adds to the stress of accommodating so many students in such a small space. It takes a toll on everyone.

“We are very sentimental right now, the kids and the teachers. We have to work with the emotional part because everything makes us cry. The loss. It’s very hard for us making the change.”
Nieves recognizes that the lost months of steady school work has set her students back considerably. The best she can do is help support them and their families as they struggle outside of the school as well.

“The support I give them, here at least, I’m always positive in helping. Parents are always there telling their stories and I never close that door to any parent. I don’t give appointments either. If they need me in that moment, I give it to them in that moment. Because I don’t know how things will be tomorrow, so I give it to them now because they need me now.”

“I am hopeful,” Nieves continues, “because we could have been worse off. However, we’re still here, and we’re fine.”

As Modesto struggles, the school year continues with or without them. They won’t know the implications for lost time until they can evaluate the situation towards the end of the school year.

However, a new threat to their school lies before them.

Recently, education officials announced that another 283 schools will be closing due to the massive exodus of students to the mainland and the continuing financial issues.

“We remain optimistic,” Nieves concludes. “Giving strength to those who don’t have any. Of course, there is hope. I believe it, that Puerto Rico does get back up.”

Papa Juan

BAYAMON, Puerto Rico – At Papa Juan 23 Superior High School, the campus is bustling with life and noise. Groups of students run along the walkways of the school, laughing and complaining about their homework. The typical sounds of a high school you may find anywhere and yet not typical for a school that survived Hurricane Maria six months prior.

Papa Juan is a success story yearning to be told.

Within three weeks of Hurricane Maria’s destructive landfall on Puerto Rico, Papa Juan opened its doors to excited students, eager to return to their favorite teacher’s classrooms and to their friends whose parents decided to remain.

Principal Ivelesse Negron-Soto has directed Papa Juan for five years. In total, she has dedicated 25 years to educating the children of Puerto Rico.

Soto, 55, and former special education teacher for deaf children, signs with her hands as she speaks about her many years working with the children of her homeland.

“Soy muy feliz, I am very happy in my work,” Soto says. “Because any problems that come my way, I have a solution for.”

On September 16, 2017, Hurricane Maria came her way.

“Maria was a different category,” Soto describes. “Category 5, a category that did not exist, and the destruction was quite strong.”

“Two days after the hurricane, I show up here at school and the counselor arrived and we entered together.”

The experience was an emotional one for both of them. Soto had made Papa Juan her home and the students were her family. She wondered how they would recover.

“Honestly, the trees here made the entrance completely obstructed. Then the teachers showed up at the school because they have a lot of feeling of belonging.”

In the days to follow, the teachers, administration and students took it upon themselves to gather together every day for three weeks to clear the debris and clean the school.

“It really was a team effort that could not have been done without them. Here the teachers brought the shutters, power plant and materials we needed, and we didn’t wait for FEMA to clean our school, no, we did the work ourselves.”

With still no power but debris cleared, and the school cleaned, they were ready to open their doors to their students and faculty, but they still had to wait approval from the Department of Education.

Alondra Sarrano is a junior at Papa Juan. After Maria hit, hers was one of the hundreds of families contemplating leaving the island. Alondra’s parents are divorced, and her mother had made the choice to leave Puerto Rico for work in the United States.

Determined to practice her English, Alondra describes what she felt at the thought of leaving Puerto Rico.

“It was horrible even me thinking I was going out. It was heartbreaking leaving all my family here and maybe not seeing them for like a year with all my activities and celebrations not being with them.” She continues, “When I told my sisters they cried so much, it was horrible!”

Sarrano ended up staying in Bayamon. According to her description of the situation, she received a “technicality” and there were issues with her visa that prevented her from going.

Rafael Perez is a senior at Papa Juan and like many others, his family faced a tough decision whether to stay or go. Perez’s father has a heart condition and with the stress of the Hurricane the family thought it would be best to send him to their other son in the United States.

“We stayed like family,” says Perez. “We helped each other.”

“Altogether, we only had seven students leave Puerto Rico,” Soto says, “But four have already returned to school here.”

Papa Juan did not see a mass exodus of their students after Maria as many other schools around the island did. They were never forced to close or to consolidate with another school.

Soto contributes the strength of their school to remaining united and intact during the difficult times.

Among the entire faculty of Papa Juan, only one teacher, the 11th grade English teacher left for Florida to find work. A favorite among the students, this teacher eventually did return to Papa Juan to the pride of Soto.

Academically, Papa Juan is striving to get the students caught up.

Returning to school just three weeks after the hurricane hit was a huge advantage the students had over others whose return did not happen for months.

“Academic obstacles from Maria were students falling behind, but the teachers are working hard.”

According to Soto, “PBL, or project-based learning was implemented.”

Project-based learning is a student-centered program that helps prepare students for academic, personal and career success. It involves a dynamic classroom approach that is believed to help students be ready to face real-world challenges. PBL also teaches by prompting students to be inquisitive asking and answering questions to help problem solve.

“PBL helped a lot,” says Soto. “We hope for the academic fulfillment of the students and I understand we are quite up to date.”

The student body is longing for the internet to be reinstated as soon as possible.

‘Our books are outdated, and we really need more current information to help supplement what our books are lacking,” says Soto.

“Hurricane Maria did have an impact,” Soto says. “It impacted the students socially and emotionally and the employees and all of us, but I believe that the key has been that we have supported one another. We have been helping each other and the teachers have helped the students.”

“We have to work for the best good of the student – our reason for being,” she says. “Without students, we do not have a reason to be in school.”

The future

The education system in Puerto Rico has faced many challenges in its years of schooling its island’s children. However, with the many proposed changes coming its way, including an unprecedented 283 schools scheduled to close after the 2018 school year, only time will tell who truly survived the destructive impact of Hurricane Maria.

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