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Closures Of Schools In Puerto Rico Complicate Family Life


To Puerto Rico now where almost a quarter of all public schools are scheduled to be shut down before the start of the next school year. This move comes amid intense budget pressure. That and already declining student enrollment, which got worse after Hurricane Maria, drove many families from the island. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Carmen Crespo Vega doesn't own a car. She can't afford one. Every school day, she walks her kids to class - not a terribly long walk. About a mile and a half, but it is no leisurely stroll. Earlier this month - on the day she had to pick up her daughter's grades - I gave her a ride from her apartment in Hatillo, on Puerto Rico's northwest coast.

CARMEN CRESPO VEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "The truth is," she says, "that this is a dangerous walk." The first obstacle - crossing a high-speed, six-lane road.

CRESPO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

Crespo says the traffic light only turns red when there's a car at the intersection. She and her daughters often dart across the six lanes. Then they walk along a road up a hill - no sidewalk. Just a narrow shoulder till they reach the school.

CRESPO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

CRESPO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The Rosa E. Molinari School is one of the 265 that the government is closing. It's painted bright blue and yellow with murals on the walls. Lots of parents here have no choice but to walk, like Norma Delgado Vega.

NORMA DELGADO VEGA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She says, "it's already a dangerous walk for the children, but," she says, "things are about to get a lot worse." In many communities, news that their school was on the school closure list dropped like a bombshell. For families without cars, the first question was, how will they get their kids to the new schools? Carmen Crespo's daughters have been assigned to two different schools far apart from each other. More than six miles walking to drop them off. Another six to pick them up. The government has promised a school bus service to those affected by closures.

CRESPO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: But Crespo says the government promises school buses every year. "We've asked for a school bus," she says, "but nothing." The office of the island's education secretary, Julia Keleher, did not respond to several interview requests. At a press conference last week, Governor Ricardo Rossello was asked about the school closures.


RICARDO ROSSELLO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It's not easy," he says. "No one enjoys telling a community that their school is going to close." But he added that the closures will improve the system by ensuring an optimal number of teachers at the schools that remain. Aida Diaz is president of the island's teachers union. It has sued to block some school closures.

AIDA DIAZ: Closing a school is like killing a community. A school (speaking Spanish) is something very special. It's part of the life of the people of the community.

FLORIDO: To date, the union's been successful in court. A judge has temporarily blocked the closure of some schools, saying the government must prove it took into account all the ways closures affect students and their communities. Governor Rossello said the government will appeal that decision. Everything feels up in the air to the moms I met at the Escuela Rosa E. Molinari. And they're refusing to enroll their kids in the new schools to which they've been assigned. They ask for a lift to show me why. We hop in the car and drive the route to one of the new schools. About three miles of winding, narrow, country roads, no sidewalks, a few blind curves. All in all, an unsafe walk for children.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).


FLORIDO: "We like to walk," the mothers say, "but this is too much." They say a school bus would help, but staying in their current school would be better. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Hatillo, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIEFER'S "KICKINIT ALONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 20, 2018 at 9:00 PM PDT
A previous headline with this story incorrectly said that a judge blocked the closure of 265 schools in Puerto Rico. In fact, a judge has blocked the closure of only some of these schools.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.