Jennyfer Rivera always knew she would be a teacher at the little school near her house in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico. Her mother taught English there, and for Rivera, it seemed only natural that she would grow up and teach there, too.
“How do you feel in your home?” Rivera said. “That’s how I feel here.”
Escuela Segunda Unidad Helechal, high in the mountains of Barranquitas, was Rivera’s second home for most of her life — until Puerto Rico’s Department of Education shuttered it, along with more than 260 other schools across the island, before the start of this school year. For the communities those schools were located in, the move was devastating.
“Helechal was the school of my childhood,” Rivera said. “It’s the school of my entire life.”
The mass closures were part of the Department of Education’s efforts to cut costs amid a worsening budget crisis, and a natural disaster that left the island in shambles. There were 345,000 students in K-12 schools throughout Puerto Rico at the start of the 2017-2018 school year, but thousands left in the wake of Hurricane Maria, leaving just 319,750 by early 2018.
That meant schools needed to be consolidated, according to Julia Keleher, who was Puerto Rico’s secretary of education until her resignation last month.
“There is never a good time to close schools and it is never an easy experience,” Keleher said in an April 2018 interview. “If you had 25,000 kids and you had 15 buildings, and now you have 7,000 kids, you don’t need 15 buildings,” she said. “So that’s how we made those decisions.”
But for Rivera and her community, the blue and yellow structure down the street from her home was much more than just a school. For many communities, particularly small, rural towns near the center of the island, schools function as de facto community centers. Where neighborhoods lack things like restaurants and theaters, they have schools.
“There is nothing there [in these communities]. Nothing but the school. This is where they met to celebrate Father’s day, Mother’s day, Christmas Day,” said Aida Diaz, president of the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico. “They killed the communities. That’s the same problem all around the island.”
For the few businesses these communities did have, the loss of a school means fewer customers. Ever since S.U. Helechal closed, there’s been no one to buy sweets and snacks from Helechal Bakery or Sabor del Rincon, the candy store down the street. Both businesses have been community fixtures for decades.
Elvia Ortiz, who owns the candy store — better known around the community as “la tiendita de Elvia” — said she’s had the same container of lollipops in stock since January, and they’ve since gone bad. The day she spoke to CTLN, Ortiz said she’d gotten two customers, down from the 200 to 300 a day she’d get when the school was open.
“Before six, there were students, parents. We sold coffee and everything,” Ortiz said, speaking in Spanish. “Now, look.” Ortiz gestured around the store. It was empty.
Pictures by Amy Zahn, Justin Hicks
Nearly a year after S.U. Helechal closed its doors for the last time, Jennyfer Rivera was standing before its gates once again. It was her first time back since it closed, and since she’d heard the devastating news — sometime in the last few months, the school had been badly vandalized.
“They left the community without a school,” she said. “Now it’s vandalized and destroyed.”
And it was — the yellow buildings were now defaced with graffiti. The toilets in the bathroom were smashed. The classroom floors were covered in broken glass.
She walked around the gutted building that used to be the principal’s office, picking a plaque up off the floor and re-affixing it to the wall.
“That never should’ve been on the floor,” she said. “It needs to be high up so the world can remember what this school was.”
S.U. Helechal is far from the only closed school to meet this fate. Across the island, school buildings sit abandoned, and in some cases, more badly vandalized than Helechal. Not far away, also in Barranquitas, is Escuela Jose Berrios Berdecia, which closed in 2016. It, too, has been defaced and ruined. In Orocovis, Escuela Damian Abajo is abandoned, though not vandalized. Neighbors have taken up the task of periodically cleaning it up.
But in the case of S.U. Helechal, abandonment wasn’t the only option. Juan Negron, Chancellor of Barranquitas Universidad Interamericana de Puerto Rico, said the university offered to purchase the school in a bid to transform the structure into a state-of-the-art laboratory for sustainable agriculture. He said he never received a response.
“When I went to the school, I saw an opportunity. An opportunity to make agriculture an economic enterprise in Puerto Rico,” Negron said. “It’s a pity.
Rivera and other teachers have found it difficult to adjust to their new situations, which, Rivera said, includes larger class sizes and fewer resources.
“I can give myself and give all my heart,” she said, “but I can’t with 30 students, 35, without materials. It’s very hard. Here, we didn’t have a lot, but with a little bit, we did big things. And now I don’t have anything over there.”
The stress of the adjustment also took a toll on her health. She recalled an incident where she had a panic attack so severe, an ambulance was called. She was hospitalized ten times over the course of the first few months of the school year. Mario Santiago, who was the principal of S.U. Helechal before it closed, said he’s still in contact with many former Helechal teachers who have had similar problems adjusting.
And that’s just for the teachers who still have jobs — thousands of contract teachers weren’t rehired after the schools closed, according to the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, and either left the island or found jobs in fast food or retail.
Rivera stood in the middle of what was once her science classroom at S.U. Helechal.
“This isn’t just a structure,” she said, speaking in Spanish. “Do you understand? It’s the feeling that this was my second home … I love this school. I love the people in my community — my people. The students, the parents all of them.”
Rivera wasn’t going to ever come back to S.U. Helechal. Even just driving past it every day, she looks away. But, she said, it was time to face her beloved school, vandalism and all.
“If I want to give a part of myself to another school, I need to leave that now and make room for other kids and another community and give them the best of myself,” she said. “I need to close a chapter, so I’m here.”