This is the remarkable, almost incredible story of the biggest, fastest expansion of public Montessori ever in the United States, that you’ve probably never heard of. Why haven’t you heard of it? Because it’s been happening in Puerto Rico.
A little primer on Puerto Rico if you, like me before I started on this story, don’t know much about the territory beyond West Side Story, hurricanes, and something about a debt crisis.
Claimed by Christopher Columbus from the indigenous Taino people as a Spanish colony in 1493, Puerto Rico was ceded by Spain to the U.S. in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were made U.S. citizens in 1917 and despite numerous referenda and legislative initiatives has achieved neither statehood nor independence, retaining the ambiguous designation “unincorporated territory of the United States”, along with Guam, Northern Mariana islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and nine uninhabited islands. Puerto Rico is often considered the last surviving American colony.
Before Hurricane Maria last fall, Puerto Rico was most in the news for its debt crisis. There are deep complexities to the situation and abundant responsibility to be shared across U.S. and Puerto Rican governments and outside lenders, but in essence Puerto Rico has accumulated about $70 billion in debt (plus $50 billion in pension obligations) which is unlikely to ever be repaid. The result is a political and financial struggle between Puerto Rico, the U.S. government, and outside investors for control of the island’s future.
Then, in September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck the island. It’s difficult to convey the impact of the storm, the worst natural disaster Puerto Rico has ever faced. Coming on the heels of Hurricane Irma weeks before, which had already left 80,000 residents without power, Maria tore across the island with 100+ mph winds and truly torrential rain, flooding parts of San Juan waist-deep and destroying the power grid for all 3.4 million residents. Half the island still has no power, and the death toll, officially listed as 64, is almost certainly over 1,000. Like New Orleans after Katrina, in some ways Puerto Rico will never be the same.
Facts and Figures
If Puerto Rico were a U.S. state, it would be the poorest, just behind Mississippi, with a GDP per capita* of about $34,000. On the other hand, this would make it by far the richest country (per capita) in Latin America, well ahead of Chile (about $24,000), Argentina (about $20,000) and Mexico (about $18,000). This puts Puerto Rico in a cluster with countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Israel. It is a highly unequal country, with a Gini co-efficient of .53 (1.00 = completely unequal, 0 = completely equal), just out of the top ten. (The most unequal countries, with numbers in the .60s, are in sub-Saharan Africa. The U.S. as a whole comes in around .41, and the most equal countries, in the .20s, are in eastern Europe and Scandinavia.) By size, Puerto Rico is small and dense, packing about 3.4 million people onto an island 110 by 40 miles—think of Connecticut, which is quite similar in size, shape, and population, if rather different in concentration of wealth.
So the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is 100 times smaller than the U.S., poorer than the poorest state, and hampered by centuries of colonial exploitation and external control. How is it that over the last 20 years, 50 public Montessori schools have opened on the island? This is one in 25 of Puerto Rico’s 1250 or so public schools. If that ratio held in the U.S. as a whole, there would be 3,600 public Montessori schools instead of the 500 we have now. It would be as if Connecticut had 50 where today it boasts four. What is the story of this miracle, and of the dynamic and passionate educator behind it?
Ana Maria Garcia
Ana Maria Garcia Blanco, now nearing 60, grew up in a middle-class family and, like most in her socio-economic class on the island, attended private Catholic school. Public schools in Puerto Rico, then as now, despite periodic reform initiatives, have been characterized by low performance and graduation levels, parental dissatisfaction, and centralized, bureaucratic decision-making. Naturally, families with means to do so opt out of the system, leaving it to serve the least privileged children. In the mid-70s, Garcia attended Harvard University, earning her B.A. and staying an extra year for an M.Ed. She returned to San Juan in 1980 and became a public-school teacher. The Puerto Rican Department of Education would not recognize her Harvard degrees as a teaching credential without two more years of schooling, so she worked under a special certification as an English teacher in high-need rural schools, renewing her license each year.
In 1986, Garcia went back to Harvard to pursue a Ph.D. in education, returning to Puerto Rico in the summers to work with the community in the barrio Juan Domingo in Guaynabo, a town on the outskirts of the capital, San Juan. Juan Domingo is a poor but proud community with a rich history and residents whose grandparents were the children of freed slaves. In the late 80s, the barrio was struggling to survive in the face of poverty, broken homes, drug use and violence among its youth, and a wave of gentrification. The Department of Education was pursuing a program of closing down and consolidating small schools, including the one serving the barrio. Garcia worked with community organizers to keep the school open and maintain their autonomy, and in 1990 they succeeded, opening the Ponce de Leon school and hiring Garcia with her newly minted Ph.D as principal (again involving a struggle for recognition of the credential by the Department of Education). From the beginning, the work was driven by principles of collaboration, collective work, and participative governance. Puerto Rico was developing a reform model for “Community Schools” at that time, and Ponce de Leon served as model for the law passed in 1993. Community Schools in Puerto Rico function something like in-district charters found in some U.S. states: they are under the department of education administratively, but they have significant local autonomy in directing and implementing their educational program. At Ponce de Leon, as with all of the Montessori schools now in the program, community members form the core of the work force, beginning as assistants and often moving on to take teacher training, as well as serving on the school council and making decisions on a collective and consensus basis rather than a majority-rule voting system.
In 1994, while looking for preschool for her three-year-old son, Garcia stumbled on a local independent Montessori school. She had heard about Montessori growing up from her father, who emigrated from Spain after the Spanish Civil War, during the period that Maria Montessori was doing notable work in Barcelona. Like many parents encountering Montessori for the first time, Garcia was won over, and she also saw the synergies between Montessori and the collective, participatory principles of her community organizing work. In 1995, under the auspices of the Community Schools law, Ponce de Leon opened its first Children’s House for three year-olds, which was also the first public Montessori school in the entire system. “Those children transformed the elementary school,” Garcia said, and the other teachers began studying the Montessori approach. By 2000, the whole school was a Montessori school.
That’s when things really began to take off for public Montessori in Puerto Rico. Other communities began to look at Juan Domingo, which had been “at the margin”, as Garcia put it, as a model of a community able to open a school which had been closed by the government. Schools were more interested in the community governance model than the Montessori at first, but the Montessori caught on, and over the next five years three more public Montessori programs opened. The model, which had previously only been available in private schools, was for the first time accessible to families who couldn’t possibly pay tuition.
The Insituto Nuevea Escuela
Finding trained teachers was a challenge as always, as no training was present on the island at that time. The school raised money to send community members to the U.S. and Mexico for AMI and AMS training, but the costs were almost prohibitive. In 2005, Garcia met with AMS Living Legend trainers Michael and D’Neal Duffy, who came to Puerto Rico and helped establish the Center for Montessori Education to train teachers locally. In 2008 the Instituto Nueva Escuela (INE) was founded to support the growth of public Montessori in Puerto Rico, and Garcia became the Executive Director. Today, INE operates a MACTE-accredited AMS teacher training center, staffed with “home-grown” trainers trained on the island in the 2000s. It has trained more than 500 teachers.
By 2012, four schools had grown to twelve. By 2014 that number had more than doubled to 25, and by 2014 it had reached 50. Also in 2014, the government recognized public Montessori as an official part of the department of education, and created a Secretary of Montessori Education position. (Needless to say, no comparable position exists in the U.S. Department of Education, or in any state department.) Violence, drug use, and drop-outs have been eliminated in the INE schools, and before Maria hit, the Institute was working with a backlog of 37 schools wanting to join the project. Over and over, across the island, in municipalities and remote rural areas, schools scheduled to be closed down for low enrollment have re-opened as Montessori schools with long waiting lists.
But after the hurricane, public Montessori in Puerto Rico needs help. Garcia and the INE have launched an impressive reconstruction and reopening campaign, but the scope of work is almost overwhelming. When I’ve spoken to Garcia, it’s been when she can drive into the city where there is, at times, power and cell phone service. 30% of INE’s schools, many in remote rural areas, suffered severe structural damage after the hurricane. Roofs were torn off, walls were knocked down, and rivers ran through buildings. In the immediate aftermath, INE organized “brigades” to deliver food, water, and basic supplies to these schools, their teachers, and their communities. Many older school buildings survived, having been built in he last century to withstand hurricanes. But housing for many subsistence-income school families was a different story. INE has organized a collective housing project, using their collaborative and participatory governance model, with twelve communities and architects from the University of Puerto Rico, to rebuild homes.
Reopening schools has presented a different challenge: poor communication and government bureaucracy. Schools can’t officially reopen without inspection and approval from the Department of Education. In the meantime, weeks and months go by and children miss valuable hours and days of education. Some INE schools have solved this problem by taking advantage of the slow pace of recovery. They’ve simply opened back up without approval, and when the bureaucrats finally come by, they in effect throw up their hands and say that without telephone service they took matters into their own hands.
Public Montessori in Puerto Rio faces one more threat in the Maria’s wake: New Orleans style privatization. After hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Louisiana fired all the teachers, and took over almost all of the city’s public schools and turned them into charters, in the largest school privatization event anywhere, ever. The effects of this change are complex and controversial. New Orleans schools were in bad shape and performing poorly before the storm, with dilapidated buildings, low graduation rates, and even lower achievement test scores. All that has changed with the charter makeover of the last ten years, but at a questionable cost. For every article and feature touting New Orleans’ success, it’s easy to find a comparable piece leveling charges of racism, cherry-picking, union-busting, and outright corruption.
Now public educators in Puerto Rico fear the same approach will come to their system. Puerto Rico’s reform-minded Secretary of Education Julia Keleher is open to the idea: “This is a real opportunity to press the reset button,” she said, and called the rebuilding after Katrina “a point of reference”. She has been aggressive about breaking down the Department of Education’s cumbersome and inefficient administrative structure even before the storm, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. Outside of the Montessori schools, Puerto Rico’s public schools perform worse than New Orleans’ ten years ago.
But Ana Maria Garcia is skeptical of charters. She’s all for the local control which INE’s Community Schools exercise, but many of Puerto Rico’s schools are rural and remote, and a lottery-based choice model could leave students separated from their first choice by miles of unpaved road across rivers and mountains. And beyond the practicalities, Garcia raises the central ideological question about charters versus broad public education: “Let’s build a system that offers a very good school for everyone, everywhere, so people have the knowledge they need to participate in democracy. This is what would further Montessori’s vision of creating a more just society for all.”
It remains to be seen what will happen on the island. Garcia—and her unique synergy between Montessori and collaborative, participative community organizing—have shown themselves to be a force to be reckoned with, and they have endured. But the forces, natural and political, arrayed against her are powerful as well. Montessorians can support her work in a number of ways. Correspondence and collaboration with the INE and its schools would be an excellent project for any Montessori elementary classroom, especially one where Spanish is spoken, and a great opportunity to get children involved. There are several online fundraising campaigns, on Antrocket and GoFundMe here and here. And anyone who wishes to learn more or contribute further is encouraged to contact Ana Maria directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or her assistant, Lulu Arroyo, at email@example.com.