clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Students play basketball at Paso Palmas Elementary School in Utuado, Puerto Rico, a few weeks before the school shut down permanently in June.

Filed under:

About a quarter of Puerto Rico’s schools are shutting down. Here’s a look inside one.

The last days of Paso Palmas — one of nearly 300 schools that Puerto Rico is closing permanently.

“A community without a school ... is a vacant community,” said Verónica Dávila, a second-grade teacher in rural Puerto Rico. “It’s actually a dead community.”

Dávila is a teacher at Paso Palmas, a school that has taught children in the remote area of Utuado for more than 70 years — and that closed its doors for good this June. The school is one of nearly 300 in Puerto Rico that are shutting down permanently this summer because of the island’s dire economic situation.

Paso Palmas is a school in the remote area in Utuado, Puerto Rico. The area was hard hit by Hurricane Maria, and the school is closing its doors permanently after more than 70 years of serving the community.

Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico and hit Utuado especially hard. It took two months to reopen Paso Palmas after the storm, and the school remained without water and had only limited electricity from a generator, which took the Federal Emergency Management Agency seven months to provide. The school’s population fell to 55, as about a dozen students and their families left the area after Maria.

The school had barely managed to restore a sense of normalcy when families found out that Paso Palmas was on the list of school closures.

In April, the government listed 283 schools that would close down permanently in June. After a government review, that number was revised down to 265. (A judge on Wednesday ordered the government to stop the closure of nine more schools.)

Puerto Rico owes more than $70 billion to creditors and filed for bankruptcy-like protection a few months before Maria hit — the largest government bankruptcy in US history.

It’s unclear how many schools were already on the chopping block before Hurricane Maria made landfall in September and inflicted an estimated $90 billion worth of damage to the island. In the wake of the hurricane, enrollment dropped as families fled to the US mainland after Maria.

In all, about a quarter of the island’s schools are shutting down, displacing around 60,000 students. The closings reflect the largest wave of spending cuts to K-12 public education in Puerto Rico’s history — about $1.5 billion in the next six years.

For the first time in its history, the island has passed laws providing vouchers for students to attend private schools and paving the way for charter schools. The island’s largest teachers union has opposed the move toward privatization, saying it will lead schools to prioritize profit over education. Puerto Rico’s education officials, who consulted with US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, said the reforms will allow schools to be more adaptable and competitive.

Students hug their teacher goodbye at the end of a school day. The school has served generations of families in this rural mountainous region.

Now children and their families whose schools will be closed face the burden of finding a school to attend in the fall.

Students at Paso Palmas are in this predicament. The distance between Paso Palmas and the closest school is a 40-minute drive along difficult roads — not counting the walk several students make each morning to reach a road passable by car. Some families don’t have cars or money for gasoline.

The restructuring of the school system marks the end of an era for children in schools like Paso Palmas, who have been educated in a close-knit, familial atmosphere for decades.

Paso Palmas staff and volunteers like Ferdinand Guzmán Matías (top left) and María Arriaga (top right) became emotional when they spoke about the school’s closing.

Parental involvement has been an integral part of the school community. Many parents walk their children to school, spend time there during the day, and get involved in school activities. Many who graduated from the school later return to volunteer there.

“The unity we had here, the organization we had here, the family environment, the community involved — it totally gets lost once they’re out of here,” said María Arriaga, a community member who volunteers at the school.

Sonia Negrón Carreras, above, watches over her grandchildren after school. She lives in an area of Utuado that is extremely difficult to reach by car. Sonia and her nine children all attended Paso Palmas, which was central to life in the community.

Wanda Cottes Plaza, the mother of a first-grader, lamented, “We are mourning the upcoming closure of our little school. It is our family. It’s inconceivable what they’re doing with the well-being of our children.”

Andrea Liz Rosario Cotte, a first-grader at Paso Palmas, plays before bedtime by the light of a lantern. Her family remains without electricity and water nine months after Hurricane María.
Supreme Court

A Supreme Court case about hotel websites could blow up much of US civil rights law

World Politics

What India’s parliamentary gender quota can — and can’t — do for women

World Politics

The conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, explained

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.