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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A study in contrasts

As students & teachers begin a new academic year with fresh uniforms & enthusiasm, some public schools display glaring deficiencies in infrastructure and other areas

The first day of classes at Dr. Conchita Cuevas Public High School in Gurabo. (Photos by Richard Gutiérrez/The San Juan Daily Star)

By Richard Gutiérrez


Many of us remember our first day of school in any grade, some of us with more nostalgia than others. That first walk through the halls, the early morning first class, the teacher calling out names and students replying: “Present.”

Wednesday was that first day of classes for thousands of students across the island and for a healthy contingent at Dr. Conchita Cuevas Public High School in Gurabo. Music filled the hallways as the school extended its grand welcome to senior students arriving this year. In addition to the music, the students were received with balloons as new uniforms and backpacks colored the hallways, as some students in the school lobby danced and sang for the senior welcome.

Everything seemed well … except it wasn’t. As the STAR entered the outskirts of the school, there were contracted workers painting parts of the school’s exterior. The sight wasn’t pleasant. Inside the classrooms the environment wasn’t really any better; most public offices in the island possess air-conditioning because of how naturally hot the weather is in Puerto Rico. This year in particular, summer has been extensively hot on the island, with record-breaking heat waves. Unfortunately, the school’s classrooms were not air conditioned. In fact, one had a multitude of fans positioned throughout the room; however, none of them were provided by the island Department of Education.

“Within the experience I have as a teacher, I am comfortable, but in terms of the infrastructure of the school, improvements need to be made,” biology teacher Adelmarí Miranda told the STAR.

While schools not being prepared is a much-discussed topic on the island nearly every school year, the overall effect the situation could have on students can be damaging. Miranda said that while aesthetics may seem like the last thing that should matter in terms of education, aesthetics in fact play an important role in terms of practicality.

“If you get to a workplace where the appearance is not good, nobody likes it,” Miranda noted. “When you walk into a school and the paint job isn’t properly finished, that is an environment that doesn’t promote any sort of motivation toward learning. If the environment isn’t welcoming, the students won’t feel the desire to learn.”

She added that the “painting is being done on the first day of class.”

“While teachers are not in school, that’s when the administration should work on repairing the school,” she said.

The teachers reported to work last Friday and there were still people using water pressure machines and painting. While directors are charged with overseeing a school, Miranda pointed out that sometimes their hands are tied.

“Many times directors just follow orders from the regional director; they don’t have much of a choice,” she said.

When the STAR tried speaking to the school director, it learned that they aren’t allowed to speak as public school directors are prohibited from speaking to the press.

Miranda was also fortunate enough to speak to the contractor in charge of the school rehabilitation work.

“What the contractor told me was that the process began in November 2022, but they are starting to work on it now,” the teacher said.

The infrastructure is just the beginning of the problems for schools. Miranda’s classroom was freshly painted and had a total of nine fans throughout; however, all of the fans were purchased by Miranda herself, and she also had a hand in the painting of her classroom. This is unfortunately the reality for many teachers, not just those at Conchita Cuevas.

“I’ve purchased all of these fans and the paintjobs I’ve done as well,” Miranda noted. “I’ve put my students first. I have a tiny fan on my desk while I got bigger fans for the students. It’s not easy; the Department of Education has to pay more attention to these details, which are important. Sure, they give us certain materials, but they are too basic; we need our classrooms to be in good condition and with an environment so that when our students get here they can learn, and be happy learning.”

The teacher also spoke about other underlying issues that concern public schools.

“We called to the national coliseum on Monday [Aug.] 14 for an event that was rather motivating, but it wasn’t what we needed as teachers. What we needed was a proper salary, a good retirement, for our workspaces to be much more comfortable; it is detrimental to work in such conditions for both students and teachers,” Miranda said. “Many of us were expecting something different from this event, a huge change, but things have stayed the same. Words of encouragement are great, but actions will always speak louder than these words.”

The good vibes of Wednesday’s senior welcome notwithstanding, Miranda believes that “maybe a teenager might see a ruined classroom and think it’s great because the teacher is cool, but they are developing their critical thinking, and the reality that adults see, students will see it sooner rather than later.”

“It’s insane to me that the Department of Education invested all of that money into that event instead of investing it on fixing up schools and keeping them in shape, ready for the beginning of the school year,” she said.

A special education teacher who preferred to remain anonymous told the STAR that the aforementioned deficiencies also cause problems for students in the Special Needs program, who need extra materials in order to be given a proper education.

“We need materials that are specialized to teach them properly; they should be offering more materials to help us,” the teacher said.

Several attempts by the STAR to reach the Department of Education by phone and email for comment were unsuccessful.

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