“The Disappearing Schools of Puerto Rico” is an eye-opening photo essay by Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi with text by Jonathan Katz, who writes, “Over the past three years, hundreds of schools have closed across Puerto Rico. Their ruins are among the most visible evidence of the island’s vicious circle of poor governance, neglect by Washington and environmental catastrophe.” Here are brief excerpts. Check out these heart-wrenching photos and a detailed description of the political and social context behind these closures in The New York Times Magazine.
During the blazing summer of 2019, Puerto Rico was in tumult. Thousands of the islands’ residents marched shoulder to shoulder through cities. They sang, danced and demanded the ouster of the commonwealth’s negligent governor, Ricardo Rosselló — and, with him, the federal control board that holds economic power over the United States’ oldest remaining colony in the Americas.
The crowd’s ire was fueled in part by a sense of absence. Away from the echoing drums, down forgotten streets and across green mountains, the islands are emptying. Decades of abuse, austerity, corruption and now the ravages of climate change have triggered an exodus of people and money. As the summer wet season gives way to the wary hurricane watch of an ever-warmer fall, no evidence of this decline is more powerful than the islands’ hundreds of abandoned schools.
The photographer Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi and I spent weeks touring these monuments to neglect. Books and blackboards rotted in the humidity. Stray dogs made their beds beneath teachers’ desks. Some of the buildings had been left to addicts and thieves. In others, neighbors had refashioned empty classrooms into stables for horses, rabbits and pigs. Even in schools that remain in use, mold creeps, roofs are torn and gymnasiums sag like wet shoe boxes. Landslide-prone slopes loom, unrestrained, behind buildings filled with students.
Most of the damage is the result of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane season, when Hurricanes Irma and Maria blasted through, wrecking homes and destroying the islands’ archaic electrical grid. The Trump administration’s dismissive federal response to the storm — punctuated by the hiring of Whitefish Energy, a small and inexperienced Montana-based contractor with ties to the administration, to oversee reconstruction of the electrical grid — helped leave Puerto Rico in the dark for months. The lag compounded the economic damage and contributed to the deaths of anywhere from 2,650 to 3,290 people.
I asked a teacher at one partially destroyed school in the central mountains if she felt abandoned by the government. “Well, look at this roof,” she replied. Another elementary school we saw, in the western city Mayagüez, had reopened a formerly vacant wing to take in students from nearby shuttered schools. On the second day we visited, the school was closed. It was a clear, sunny day, a year and a half after the hurricanes, but the neighborhood was in yet another post-storm blackout. [. . .]
The exodus of money and people, including children, placed immediate pressure on Puerto Rico’s schools. Soon after taking office in 2017, Rosselló brought Julia Keleher, the founder of a small Washington education consultancy, to take over the fragile school system. Keleher, who is from the Philadelphia area, had a reputation as an expert at winning government grants. Indeed, her firm had recently obtained a $231,000 contract with the department she was about to head.
Keleher quickly embarked on a two-pronged mission to overhaul the school system. She pushed for the creation of semi-privatized charter schools and private-school vouchers. At the same time, she shut down hundreds of still-functioning public schools. Defending her actions, she later said: “Somebody had to be the responsible adult in the room.” Keleher, who is white, also likened the fury she received from Puerto Rican parents and the islands’ well-organized teachers’ union to the experience of being a racial minority. [. . .]