How Puerto Rico's education secretary is working to repair a broken system
After Hurricane Maria devastated the island and its schools, Julia Keleher's command of one of America's largest districts is pioneering change
When Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher took office in January 2017, she had no idea what was coming.
Just six months into her tenure, Hurricane Irma hit the island. And two weeks after that, Hurricane Maria took center stage, laying waste to the territory and becoming the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico in 85 years. Schools were destroyed, homes were left without electricity or water, and enrollment plummeted by the thousands as families fled.
While Keleher, a Philadelphia native, said it didn't take long for school systems to get "back to normal" after Maria hit, more than a year later, her department is still working to mend an education system that was broken long before the natural disasters ravaged the island.
Keleher sat down with Education Dive during a visit to Washington, D.C., where she discussed her recovery strategy and the advances, challenges and life lessons that have come along with it.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: There’s a lot to talk about with Puerto Rico and education, and we know Hurricane Maria took a large toll on the territory. We'd love to hear what the recovery process has looked like.
JULIA KELEHER: From a timeline perspective, we finished the end of the 2016-17 school year and had summer. And then Sept. 5 was Irma, and then we had Maria. It was so quick into the school year — we had a month, and then all of a sudden the system was paralyzed.
Recovery in the first months probably happened faster than anybody really understood it was happening, because we started opening schools Oct. 16. So that hurricane hit the 20th, the whole government was shut down for, like, five days, and between then and Oct. 16, we were able to visit all of the schools in two regions to be able to figure out which ones could be opened again.
In a series of three weeks before the beginning of November, after a storm of that magnitude, schools had opened again. We probably got back to normal in January. There seemed to be less instability in the system, and then we finished the school year.
The schools, they’re really not in great condition. They’re in the best condition we can put them in, given what’s allowable with the available federal funds. We have the first list of schools, and we have to put them in some kind of priority order. So, there’s a larger conversation that’s going to happen.
In terms of the inside of the schools, which is what the U.S. Department of Education has helped with, we have $500 million of RESTART funds. We’ve purchased books for K-12 in all the core subject materials. We’re putting science kits back in schools. We have a $300 million technology investment that includes 150,000 computers and an upgrade in the bandwidth. We have nurses in schools to help deal with trauma, and we’re replacing our data and information systems.
It’s a big, big lift, because we were already working on the transformation of a system that for 20 years had failed to produce good outcomes. What we’re trying to do is just plan in ways that create synergies so that when I fix something over here, I’m simultaneously addressing another problem.
There’s a lot of factors inside and outside the classroom impacting students’ ability to succeed. How do you align those priorities to figure out what to tackle first? How does that decision-making process look for you?
KELEHER: We created four goals: The first is to improve the return on investment, so whether I’m getting better outcomes for kids — based on their achievement, graduation rate, their success in college, whatever it is I’m doing — I’m getting better results for kids. Two, address the child as a whole. Three, professionalize what it means to be part of the department, because there had been a system that was politicized, had no accountability, and kind of was in a free-for-all. And four, optimize the use of resources.
I have a chart where you lay out those four goals, and I have my initiatives for all of the components of my system, and I can see how each is funded. The first thing I’m looking for is balance, because I find all of those things to be equally important. If the kid hasn’t slept, hasn’t eaten, is ill — no matter if I train the teacher or not — the little guy is probably not going to be as successful as if I made sure the family got what they needed and he slept and he ate and whatever.
We have the goals and we have the investments, and we look at those in a portfolio, and we make sure there’s sufficient and balanced coverage. And there’s a scale that we use to say, "OK, on any one of these indicators, how does the school fare?" So that you can prioritize intentionally with data about how you’re moving in this environment.
You do all that, and then we’re balancing this in the context of a fiscal control board where I had a budgetary reduction of $300 million. We are constantly managing our headcount, our payroll numbers and looking for ways to create efficiencies and savings that can be reinvested to improve the quality. That’s all on a sliding scale, and it depends on the problem I’m trying to solve. The challenge of the system is demonstrating which of those components are most important, and when I select off of any one, I understand that there are related things that I need to consider before I go forward. So that’s how I manage. Piece of cake.
I don’t know of another system that has had to deal with so many simultaneous interconnected challenges that reduce degrees of freedom to the degree that we have right now in Puerto Rico.
Secretary, Puerto Rico Department of Education
A lot of people in the U.S. don’t see the scope of what’s happening in Puerto Rico. We want to try to put in perspective what that looks like on top of the revitalization and recovery strategy with an already limited supply of funds. Also, there’s the issue of where Puerto Rico stands with the U.S. and how that matches up to other states.
KELEHER: I am doing a lot less in a system that was already resource-depleted, so that means I have to be very strategic in my use of funds. You have to figure out what funds can do what thing, and where can you create synergies and how can you get a better return so you try to get the most out of that dollar. And we’re trying to have the value inside of each resource be amplified. We gave teachers their first raise in 10 years, and I didn’t fire one teacher despite closing some 400 schools. I’m making payroll despite a $300-million budget reduction. That’s not a very easy thing to accomplish.
But I don’t think the discussion of the reform and the recovery of education in Puerto Rico has been handled with the level of depth and detail that you’re trying to get at. And it’s unfortunate. I don’t know of another system that has had to deal with so many simultaneous interconnected challenges that reduce degrees of freedom to the degree that we have right now in Puerto Rico.
If you look back before the hurricane hit, there was a need for more funding for Puerto Rico. Some blamed things like politics and rhetoric for getting in the way of that. Do these kinds of discussions show up in education?
KELEHER: We have to have a real conversation around how choosing to not fund directly correlates to the reduction of X service, and people have to decide if they are OK with that and they accept the implications of that. That becomes a political conversation, because budgets are built for agencies and asks are made writ large. That doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and there are finite resources.
But I would argue that if you don’t fix your education system, your economy is going to continue to struggle, and your corrections budget is going to go through the roof. That makes it more of a policy and political discussion. If federal funding for healthcare isn’t going to include the needs of special education students, all of a sudden you have a direct political impact or public policy impact on the education budget and its capacity to operate. That’s related to politics. I try to operate in a way that recognizes those limitations and generates opportunities for more than one party — not like political party, but one of the entities in the discussion — to come away winning. It’s tricky.
What about school closures? Will any more schools be shut down?
KELEHER: We’ve closed all the schools we’re going to close. I have my footprint that I need. My buildings are at an appropriate utilization rate, and I have teachers in every classroom, which I didn’t have before.
Inside of the number of the schools being closed is a student-teacher ratio. The question of the number of schools to close started as a projection based on ideal student-teacher ratio and understanding the total number of buildings you would need for the population size that you had. So we did that math, and we made our decisions.
I have what I have now, and not only is it not necessary, but it’s not possible to reduce the footprint further. And why is that OK? We’re meeting the target, which was the whole point of closing the buildings in the first place. So we’re good with what we have now.
I fight all day every day, and it’s exhausting. But if somebody’s not fighting for the change, then it’s not going to change.
Secretary, Puerto Rico Department of Education
There are people who say advocating for school choice and vouchers takes away from the limited funding supply. What’s your argument for either?
KELEHER: The choice thing is interesting. The whole system is pretty much open enrollment, and the charters are an effort to really implement the spirit of the charter school law. They talked about schools being reflective of the community and emerging from the community and being shaped by the community. It’s basically allowing for communities to identify their own needs.
The charter we have right now is run by the Boys and Girls Club. They looked at the needs of their community, and then they made a program that responded to them. That’s a game-changer. When choice really means access to that kind of programming, I don’t see the harm. I think kids win. I think families win.
In terms of the vouchers, there are particular instances where public schools are consistently failing kids. This is intended to be a policy option that doesn’t turn a blind eye to the fact that if you keep sending your child and we keep failing to help them, and we haven’t done anything, you’re sort of complicit in the problem because you’re not offering any sort of alternative.
They’re both capped, and they’re not intended to overrun the system. The overall disposition from the public is yes, they wish they had more options and more access to high-quality options. My goal, at the same time, in providing those is to improve the quality of what I’m offering — but in the meantime, giving people access to other things seems reasonable.
If you tried to boil it down, what would you say is the biggest challenge Puerto Rico is facing in its education system?
KELEHER: The biggest problem, I think, is the lack of individuals who are well-versed and experienced in some of the more recent, more innovative and likely to be effective practices. Puerto Rico has been isolated and not part of a larger conversation about public education. There are so many things that happen in the education space that seem so readily accessible here that don’t have the roots that they need there.
We haven’t done enough to cultivate the educators in our system so they are thinkers and leaders and forerunners in particular elements that could be very successful for advancing our work. If you put money on top of a person who doesn’t know how to do a particular thing, that’s not helpful. And I need something that’s sustainable, because that level of money might not always be there. But I really think it’s developing that in-house expertise and connecting ourselves to a larger conversation so that we can leverage.
What has all of this taught you about your ability to lead, and what have you been able to glean from that and what’s happened as a result?
KELEHER: I take very personally the responsibility of having the futures of 307,000 kids in my hands. I don’t want to fail a child or to fail to do something that reduces their opportunities for success. That means something to me. That drives everything that I do, and it makes it necessary to get it right. And I want my teachers to feel respected, go to healthy school environments, have resources, feel professional. I want that. I aspire to that.
All of these other things that I’m explaining in factual and cold terms are to achieve that human end. I think that gets lost sometimes. The hard things to do are many times for a greater good. Closing the schools and not firing anybody, there was a sensitivity in that. But there was a difficult thing that was going to be experienced, and we did try to mitigate the majority of that impact.
I’ve learned that people who aren’t mission-committed can’t be successful in that environment, and I think there is a willing suspension of one’s own interests for the greater good that will alleviate any of the day-to-day pains. I fight all day every day, and it’s exhausting. But if somebody’s not fighting for the change, then it’s not going to change.
When it’s hard, it makes me know that I’m doing the right thing, so the rest of the stuff just stops mattering until this is fixed. It’s an honor to serve, and I’ve grown a lot. And I’ve learned and I’ve made mistakes. It’s all for a higher cause.
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