Keleher: Fix Problems Before School Begins
Editor’s note: The following article originally appeared in the August 3 print edition of Caribbean Business.
SAN JUAN — The decreased number of public school students and parents’ delays in enrolling their children before the first day of school—Aug. 14—worries Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher, who is awaiting data stabilization to complete the process of hiring teachers and school transportation.
As of July 24, the Education Department had 291,757 students enrolled—well below the agency’s projections of 360,000 students for the new school year. Migration is one reason school enrollment continues to decline. Although numbers vary on a daily basis, they are not necessarily reliable because of the agency’s deficiencies in entering data in their electronic systems.
“The lack of activity we have seen in enrollment is worrisome. We need parents to enroll their children. So, [this week], we are going to launch an online enrollment campaign so it can let me know where students are so I can start to get ready,” Keleher said in an interview with Caribbean Business.
Parents will be able to enroll their children in the school of their choice, she said. The idea is to stimulate competition between schools, so education quality, the student environment and the school community’s motivation will foster each institution’s growth and the disappearance of those that provide less inspiration.
“That suits us in the long run because it stimulates a competition…. You have the faculty, a number of things were done at the school, you have 25 resources and you need students to justify that you have 25 resources; so go look for them [students], because if you don’t get them, I’m going to take a resource away. That’s how we should be doing it, [but] we’re doing it the other way round: I give you resources and I know nothing about the kids,” Keleher explained.
She said enrollment should not be refused at any school, especially at the so-called receiving schools because the idea is for everyone to have educational access. Complaints regarding enrollment-related problems may also be filed using the agency’s website www.de.gobierno.pr.
Missing teachers, school repairs pending
As in other years, a shortage of teachers and problems with school facilities are the order of the day.
The Education secretary’s projections estimate the institution will be short by some 400 teachers when classes begin. According to the department’s data, as of July 27, 897 teachers need to be hired. A few days earlier, the number was more than 1,800 teachers, but the exact figure is difficult to determine because published charts do not always contain the same elements. In other words, they sometimes share data related to educational regions and at other times about the needed educational specialty.
Data from July 21 details that the largest number of teachers required were in areas such as elementary and high school English, followed by high school Math and Science, and Special Education.
“We still have pending [job] announcements, but I am dealing with a situation that had prevailed for years, in which the needs of the population do not correspond to the classifications of the human resources that are part of my system. That is a huge problem,” Keleher said while pointing out there are serious issues about the ways teachers are interviewed and hired by the department.
Deficiencies in hiring, however, have not resulted in queue violations against teachers aspiring to a position, Keleher said, dismissing teacher leaders’ claims. She added that the changes in data are because many Education employees enter their information in the computerized system at the end of the day, which delays the process.
In other matters, she confirmed she placed teachers listed as surplus in areas outside their educational specialty because “I am paying for a resource and I have a need.”
“A teacher is a teacher. The content, depending on what it is, whether it’s Physics or Algebra, there are some things teachers know how to do. A teacher is supposed to facilitate the learning process,” said Keleher, who hopes to subsidize the courses these teachers take to adjust their new positions using Title II federal funds.
On the hiring of transitional teachers, she said they would only be able to complete 3,200 contracts, according to what was approved by the Office of Management & Budget. As of July 21, Education had hired 2,390 transitional teachers, which exposes the problems the system will face. The July 27 figures, however, did not detail the hiring of transitory teachers.
Regarding the deficiencies in school facilities, Keleher said that despite government agencies’ efforts with the “Renueva tu Escuela” (“Renew Your School”) program, some schools are still likely to face difficulties.
“The challenge is rather big. It hasn’t been dealt with for a decade. We had no maintenance in schools. We are going to fall a bit behind, of course, but we have made great improvements,” she said.