Puerto Rico struggling to maintain its schools amid cutbacks, exodus

SAN JUAN — Francisco Oller Elementary School once bustled with children, but now birds nest in classrooms strewn with leaves and with glass from shattered fluorescent lights. Long-discarded homework assignments paper the ground. Graffiti covers the walls.

The school, in a city just outside San Juan, is among more than 150 closed since 2010 as a worsening economic crisis in Puerto Rico has prompted hundreds of thousands of people to move to the US mainland over the past decade.

Driven by a combination of budget cuts and declining enrollment, the loss of so many schools is having a profound impact on communities in the US territory, forcing many children to travel to new campuses and creating a blight in places already hard-hit by recession.


The government says the situation could get much worse. It warned recently that by early next year it may run out of money to pay its bills, and over the next five years it may have to close nearly 600 of the 1,387 remaining schools across the island to save $249 million a year. At one time there were 1,460 public schools in Puerto Rico.

The trend ‘‘speaks volumes about how we’re losing population, about how we’re not being efficient in building the island’s future, about how we’re losing opportunities to create citizens,’’ said San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. ‘‘I’m extremely concerned this will increase the hopelessness and mistrust that the island has in itself, and lead people to think that the only option to succeed and support their families is to leave the island.’’

Puerto Rico has seen school enrollment drop 42 percent in the past three decades, and an additional 22 percent drop is expected over the next five years, according to a report by the Boston Consulting Group, which signed a multimillion-dollar deal with the government to help restructure the island’s education system.


Much of the drop is the result of parents moving to the mainland in search of opportunities, including many teachers from the island being recruited for their bilingual skills.

Among the tens of thousands of people who left last year was 27-year-old Devis Gonzalez, who moved his family to Orlando after finding a job as a truck driver.

‘‘The reason was plain and simple: work,’’ he said. ‘‘Like everyone else, we were looking for a better quality of life.’’

His young son attended a school in a rural area of Puerto Rico’s central mountain range that teachers say is among dozens expected to close permanently this summer, raising concerns that some children might have to travel a half-hour by bus to the nearest school.

Many, including Senator Mari Tere Gonzalez, president of the Senate’s education commission, criticize the government’s handling of the closures.

She said officials did not take transportation logistics and special-education needs into account. The Boston Consulting Group noted that 30 percent of Puerto Rico students receive specialized education, twice the average on the US mainland.