Puerto Ricans Transform Closed Schools Into Community Centers

An empty school doesn’t serve its purpose. The community loses a staple. The students are forced to travel farther to have the world open up to them through the classroom.

Since Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, nearly 300 schools have closed on the island, due to migration after the storm and an ongoing financial crisis.

In 2016, the U.S. Congress voted for the PROMESA Act, which created the federally appointed Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico whose mission is to manage and reduce the island’s massive $74 billion debt. School closures were a part of U.S.-imposed austerity measures to reduce spending even before the hurricane.

As in distressed communities facing austerity globally, the closures are happening in tandem with a shift to privatization of education that marginalizes low-income communities. What remains are ghostly buildings all over the island that stand as a symbol of the cuts imposed by the management board and the changing priorities of the island’s education department.

The children and teachers are gone, but the hollow buildings serve as a physical memory of the community that once was.

Chairs line a chalkboard in this classroom in an abandoned school.
Chairs line a chalkboard in this classroom in an abandoned school.
Each window and door is boarded up at the entrance of Escuela Madame Luchetti.
Each window and door is boarded up at the entrance of Escuela Madame Luchetti.
A lock over the library at the Emiliano Figueroa Torres school. The school is in the Afro-Puerto Rican community of Loiza and was closed after Hurricane Irma due to damages.
A lock over the library at the Emiliano Figueroa Torres school. The school is in the Afro-Puerto Rican community of Loiza and was closed after Hurricane Irma due to damages.

The empty shells of Puerto Rico’s closed schools are scattered all over the island, from rural towns in the mountains, to low-income communities in San Juan, to gentrifying up-and-coming neighborhoods. Walking around the abandoned buildings feels eerie. Remnants and memories of the life that once filled the school linger on: A piece of graffiti stays scratched into the wall; an old math equation left over from the teacher’s last lesson is still written on the chalkboard; and a student’s graded homework assignment is left behind on a desk.

Children’s books litter the ground in an empty classroom at the Emiliano Figueroa Torres school.
Children’s books litter the ground in an empty classroom at the
Emiliano Figueroa Torres school.
Stacks of new textbooks piled up on a desk in an empty classroom.
Stacks of new textbooks piled up on a desk in an empty classroom.

Students living in rural areas of Puerto Rico have been especially burdened by the school closures. In the community of San Salvador, after the local Escuela Segunda Unidad Mercedes Palma closed, students now have to travel farther down winding roads to the next closest school.

“What it did is create in the center of town a ghost situation,” said Tara Rodríguez-Besosa, a local community organizer with El Departamento de la Comida, a group that focuses on food justice.

Like in most neighborhoods, the closed school now remains vacant and locals have no information on what the government plans to do with the building. But community members are trying to adapt the building to meet their needs.

“It’ll hopefully be for a community center and refuge if another storm comes,” Rodríguez-Besosa said.

Tara Rodríguez-Besosa speaks to her partner in front of the Escuela Segunda Unidad Mercedes Palma in San Salvador. Locals hope to turn the school into a community center.
Tara Rodríguez-Besosa speaks to her partner in front of the Escuela Segunda Unidad Mercedes Palma in San Salvador. Locals hope to turn the school into a community center.
Vegetation and weeds grow over what used to be a playground at the Escuela Segunda Unidad Mercedes Palma.
Vegetation and weeds grow over what used to be a playground at the Escuela Segunda Unidad Mercedes Palma.

San Salvador isn’t the only place where locals are trying to turn a closed school into a community center. In the gentrifying Santurce neighborhood in San Juan, efforts are well underway to do so.

Every Saturday at the Escuela Pedro G. Goyco volunteers have been cleaning up the closed school building. The majority of the volunteers are activists and artists in the neighborhood who, after a year-long struggle, were able to win control of the building.

“I feel nostalgic and it made me very sad to see the school closed,” said Johanna Dominguez in Spanish. Dominguez attended the Goyco school as a child. Now she is a volunteer who is helping clean up the building. “It is a very beautiful and historical structure, more than 100 years old. But the truth is, it’s so neglected and abandoned, just like our education system.”

By turning the school into a community arts and culture space, “We’re trying to relive something that our street has lost,” said Lydia Platón, a community member and volunteer.

Community members cut the grass and pick up litter in the Goyco school courtyard as they turn the building into a community center.
Community members cut the grass and pick up litter in the Goyco school courtyard as they turn the building into a community center.
The child of one of the volunteers remaking Goyco school runs through the grass.
The child of one of the volunteers remaking Goyco school runs through the grass.
Volunteers wash a classroom wall.
Volunteers wash a classroom wall.

Another school in Loiza, Escuela Parcelas Suarez, has already been operating as a fully functioning community center after the school closed seven years ago and the community took ownership of the building.

After both Hurricanes Irma and Maria, relief efforts were coordinated out of the center.

“We worked day and night,” said Evelyn Allende, one of the people who runs the center and who attended the school as a child.

They did everything from removing small shrubs and twigs from the street to large fallen trees. They also provided food and water to community members in need and provided legal services for residents who didn’t have the titles to their property. Today, the center provides various classes and health services such as measuring people’s blood sugar.

Two men chat in the hallway of the community center at the former Escuela Parcelas Suarez.
Two men chat in the hallway of the community center at the former Escuela Parcelas Suarez.
Community members who run the center speak to a group of students.
Community members who run the center speak to a group of students.

Still recovering from a continued financial crisis and the impacts of hurricanes, Puerto Ricans move onward. An empty school doesn’t serve its purpose, and Puerto Rico has hundreds of them, but a reclaimed school can bring back some of what was lost.