Seventeen months ago, and eight months after I became the secretary of education in Puerto Rico, the worst hurricane in over a century decimated much of the island, dislocating thousands of families and bringing daily life here to a halt. Our school buildings were no exception; those that weren’t destroyed suffered damage ranging from power outages to missing roofs. We continue to wait for approval from FEMA to address most of our physical infrastructure needs and are hopeful that the federal government will honor its promise to ensure all students have access to a safe, healthy, and engaging learning environment.
The storm created an opportunity for the world to see the challenges confronting Puerto Rico’s schools. Hurricane Maria and its economic repercussions exposed the negative impacts of poor decision-making and the politicization of the public education system. The operation of the public schools was largely ineffective and inefficient and characterized by a mass exodus of students and teachers. Over the years, the system neglected to prioritize the provision of basic resources, such as books and technology, or allow for the development of innovative and more effective instructional practices.
Since then, Puerto Rico has made dramatic improvements in the quality of its public education system. Dedicated families, communities, teachers, and students have made it possible for great things to take place since the hurricane left our shores.
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Earlier this year, the island’s government approved a plan to create “alianza” schools, which are intended to be like charter schools, as well as a “free school” selection program similar to vouchers. The legislation creating both, signed by Puerto Rico’s governor and backed by Secretary of Education Julia Keleher, would create restraints on both programs: In the first year of the voucher-like program, for example, the number of students would be capped at 3 percent of total student enrollment, and then at 5 percent in the second year. Keleher said the programs would help the island’s educational system better meet students’ needs and help transform a long-struggling system.
Shiny apples, carrot bags, pre-packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, full containers of applesauce, sealed cartons of raisons, and unopened milk cartons. That’s what paraprofessional Lorraine Von Hess would see students tossing into the trash every day as she supervised lunch at Davies Middle School in the Hamilton Township of Atlantic County, N.J.
A shocking amount of food meandered from lunch line, to tray, to trash. It was nearly enough to fill several 50-gallon cans, the educator says. In a county struggling with food insecurity, Von Ness refused to stand idly by. She began to investigate ways to fix a system that she says was clearly broken.
“I was appalled by the food waste at school,” Von Hess says. “We have two food pantries in our town overwhelmed with people in need.”
Showing Community Spirit
Seeing an abundance of food in one corner of her life and a severe need for food in another, Von Hess knew what to do.
First, she contacted the cafeteria food services manager who informed her that all food was funded by a state grant which required by law that students receive an item from each food group. Once food hit the tray, it could not return to the kitchen. The obvious destination for unwanted food? The cafeteria’s large gray trash cans.
Von Hess continued to search for information. She found no rule that said the unconsumed food couldn’t be earmarked for a destination beyond the cafeteria.
Pointing to the closure of nearby Atlantic City casinos between 2014 and 2016, Von Hess recalls how the closures rippled into households.
“They’re struggling to keep their homes and feed their families,” Von Hess points out.
Many of the area’s families depend on food pantries to survive. And donations help to fuel the survival of the food pantries. Von Hess, a member of the Hamilton Township Education Association, explained the donation idea to the food centers in her area. They loved it!
Next, she created a detailed proposal, and headed to a meeting of the district school administration bearing a detailed plan with a name created by her son: “No Food Left Behind.”
“Administrators were excited by the idea,” Von Hess says.
The program began at Davies in March 2015 and exceeded expectations. According to Von Hess, students were eager to donate unwanted food items.
Here’s how it works: Students drop unwanted food in boxes. After lunch, paraprofessionals sort the items into categories for delivery to food pantries the same day.
Over the summer of 2015, Von Hess collaborated with principals and paraprofessionals from neighboring schools to help them start their own programs. By that September, several schools were collecting food too.
“The food that we take to the pantries helps a lot,” says Von Hess. Collectively, the schools donate about 40 reusable grocery totes of food to area pantries per week. Von Hess says schools contact her often seeking advice about pioneering their own programs.
“That’s very rewarding,” she says.
“My role as a paraprofessional has helped me to see community problems,” says Von Hess who is proud that her school got the ball rolling with “people who did not hesitate to jump in to help.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has given the thumbs up to two more state Every Student Succeeds Act plans: Alaska and Iowa.
That brings the total number of states with approved plans to 44, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Still waiting for the OK: California, Florida, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah.
Alaska is working local interim tests into its accountability system, as a measure of school quality or student success for elementary schools. The state will also consider chronic absenteeism and literacy by 3rd grade. High schools will be measured on chronic absenteeism, “on track” freshmen, and how many students are eligible for “Alaska Performance Scholarships,” which are based on GPA, completion of a certain curriculum, and achieving a certain score on tests such as the ACT. The state also makes it clear it can’t ‘”coerce” a parent to make a child take standardized tests…
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The U.S. Department of Education has started informing a small group of states that they will have to make changes to the way they test students with severe cognitive disabilities, because of accountability changes brought about by the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Federal law permits students with the most severe cognitive disabilities to take an alternate assessment aligned to alternate achievement standards. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor to the Every Student Succeeds Act, that assessment could be in the form of a portfolio, or collection of student work. But ESSA states that student assessments for accountability can only “be partially delivered in the form of portfolios, projects, or extended performance tasks,” meaning that states relying solely on portfolios have to make a change.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Education said that only a few state education agencies are expected to be affected by the requirement, and that so far, Georgia and Puerto Rico have been notified that they will have to change their testing procedures.
Allison Timberlake, Georgia’s deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability, said the state is reviewing the law and regulations but doesn’t anticipate a problem. The state is developing a new alternate assessment that will require students to perform standardized tasks, rather than relying solely on teachers collecting evidence of student performance.
“As we develop the new alternate assessment, we will review it to ensure it meets all federal requirements,” Timberlake said…
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By Tatyana Hopkins (NNPA Newswire Special Correspondent)
ARECIBO, Puerto Rico—When Howard University Student Jasmine Stevens fled New Orleans in 2005 to avoid Hurricane Katrina, she left with just enough clothes for two days. The Category 3 storm would cover her family’s neighborhood in eight-feet of water, destroy their belongings and force them to abandon their home and flee to Port Arthur, Texas, where they remained for three years.
“We lost everything,” Stevens, 20, said. “It didn’t hit me until I watched the news and saw my city underwater.”
Now, Stevens, a junior biology major, finds herself in a familiar spot, but this time hundreds of miles away in Puerto Rico, where another hurricane has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions of Americans.
Stevens is here with fellow Howard students to help the people still recovering from Hurricane Maria, which six months ago destroyed thousands of homes, wiped out the island’s already out-of-date electric grid, and limited access to clean drinking water for millions.
Most of the island now has electricity and water, but the restoration of destroyed homes, businesses and churches continues.
Stevens and six other Howard students spent Monday rebuilding La Hermosa Church in downtown Arecibo, a town of 96,000 on the island’s northern coast. Stevens, who is participating in Howard University’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) program, traveled to Puerto Rico during her spring break to assist in recovery efforts.
The students in Puerto Rico and more than 700 other Howard students have given up their vacation week, the parties and trips home to help people in various distressed areas, including Haiti, Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Thomas, Flint, Mich., New Orleans, Chicago, Texas and Florida.
“I believe that, as a global citizen, it’s important to help those in need,” said Ngodoo Iye, 21, a senior on her third ASB trip.
Stevens echoed those sentiments.
“For me, this trip is a way to give back to those who helped my family when we were victims of Hurricane Katrina,” Stevens said.
Once a place of worship for a congregation of about 40 people, La Hermosa Church remains without power and running water. After the storm, the 12,000-square foot, one-story building church was submerged in at least eight-feet of water, said La Hermosa’s pastor, Miguel Asegarra.
“I was outside watching the hurricane, and it never touched my home,” Asegarra said, “but it destroyed our church.”
Asegarra has led the church for two years. He lives 15-minutes away in a residential neighborhood.
La Hermosa rests in the city’s downtown, which was flooded by the Rio Grande Arecibo, a river just blocks away.
“This is one of the oldest churches in this city and we lost everything,” Asegarra said. “But, God has blessed us, because many people have come to help us.”
The Howard students picked up restoration of the church where several other groups left off. The church, once covered in mud and debris, had been cleaned and gutted by previous groups. The ASB team was tasked with repainting the church’s walls.
The church was one of dozens of buildings—businesses, homes, schools, government offices—that were severely damaged in Arecibo, which lies about an hour and a half west of the capital city of San Juan.
Irma Sierra Cordova, owner of a downtown pharmacy, said she used her savings to re-open her business, which closed for two months.
“I lost all of my inventory,” Cordova said, “but homes should be the priority.”
Others are still repairing homes ripped apart by the fierce winds of the storm.
“I lost my whole roof, and I have a blue tarp on top of my house to prevent it from leaking [when it rains],” said Roberto Valez, 68, a Puerto Rican native who retired here after 30 years working construction in New London, Conn. “In the first month, rain would get in and damage everything.”
While Stevens’ team worked on the church, other Howard students helped restore a building in nearby Dorado. A third group visited the local Boys and Girls Club in Las Magaritas, a neighborhood in San Juan. While there, they tutored older students and danced and played hide-and-seek with the younger ones. They taught the kids the “Cha Cha Slide” and the students taught them salsa.
Pastor Humberto Pizarro of Connected Life, a ministry in San Juan, helped Howard’s ASB program connect with those most in need. Pizarro’s church organization, Shining Bright International, is a missionary and outreach ministry that has helped more than 40 teams from the United States and the Caribbean work more than 240,000 volunteer hours to restore the island.
“God has trained us for this, and we hit the ground running,” Pizarro said.
Within two days after the hurricane, his church began delivering meals, fuel and water to residents, and by the end of the week, they had flown in their first group of helpers from the U.S. mainland.
“Everyone in our church is trained to respond to these [types] of disasters,” Pizarro said. “The church is a temple to worship, but [the church’s mission] happens outside of its four walls. We focus on outreach.”
Howard student Audre’ana Ellis said she was impressed with the work Pizarro’s church had done to move recovery efforts along.
“I’m excited to help and serve,” Ellis, 18, said. “I’m surprised to see that everyone here is so strong and has come together to get through this.”
When Oluwakanyinsola Adebola signed up to do community service as part of Howard University’s Alternative Spring Break, she knew she wouldn’t be joining her classmates and thousands of other college students who use their week off to party and play in the sun and surf of Jamaica or Aruba or any of a half dozen other Caribbean locations.
Instead, Adebola would be part of the hundreds of Howard students who, each year for more than 20 years, have given up their traditional spring breaks to serve in communities in need in places like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Memphis and New Orleans.
Ironically, Adebola will travel to a Caribbean island after all. She will be in Puerto Rico aiding the millions of U.S. citizens still struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island on September 20.
The storm, which had 155 mph winds, caused at least $90 billion in damage, destroying thousands of homes, killing at least 60 people and decimating the island’s already deteriorating power grid. Currently, about 1,200 generators power some of the homes, hospitals and schools while seven larger, more powerful energy centers, called microgrids, provide energy to key areas near important buildings like hospitals and schools.
Electricity, however remains a challenge. Recurring blackouts plague the island, and about 340,000 people, are still without power. The blackouts have upset traffic and interrupted water service to dozens of neighborhoods, including the historic Old San Juan in the nation’s capital.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration has been providing relief and rescue efforts, providing meals and water to residents.
Adebola and 47 other students, accompanied by two faculty advisors, land in Puerto Rico Friday, March 9, and begin a week of work on Monday, March 12. The ASB participants will paint schools and fix homes and churches in and around San Juan, the island’s capital.
Howard students will also visit and assist in the daily activities at two Boys and Girls clubs in Las Margaritas and Bayamón about 20 minutes outside of San Juan. Students and faculty will be staying about an hour west of San Juan at a campsite in Arecibo, six people to a room.
This year, no students applying for ASB knew where they would be placed when they signed up for the annual service missions. Applicants selected a service preference ranging from “children/orphanages” to “prison rehabilitation.” The luck of the draw would determine at which of this year’s 15 service sites they would be placed.
Adebola, an ASB first-timer, said when she checked “recovery” on her application, she thought she would be going to Houston or Belle Glade, Fla., two U.S. cities that also were hit hard by hurricanes last fall. She said she never expected to be placed in Puerto Rico.
“I’m really excited,” she said.
A native of Nigeria, Adebola moved to the United States to learn mechanical engineering to further technological advancement in her country, which she said lacks proper waste disposal systems, consistent electricity and access to clean drinking water in many parts of the country.
She said old medical equipment failed to save her 13-year-old sister’s diminishing eyesight, leaving her completely blind.
Adebola, who created a nonprofit organization at 13 to help Nigerian children, said that the goals of ASB align perfectly with hers.
“The purpose of ASB is to help people, and it gives me something productive to do,” she said.
More than 700 students will participate in ASB service missions to 14 other underserved areas and regions devastated by natural disaster this year, including St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. Martin, Anguilla, Haiti and Ghana. Groups will also go to Chicago, New Orleans, Port Arthur and Beaumont in Texas, the Florida Keys and Flint, Mich.
“We decided to go to places hit hardest by the hurricane,” said Puerto Rico site coordinator Kyliah Hughes, 20.
According to Hughes, ASB planners wanted to “make a statement” about their commitment to service by visiting places further than the usual domestic sites.
Dijon Stokes, 20, a team leader for Puerto Rico, agreed.
“We have to help beyond borders,” Stokes, said. “We go where we’re needed, and we will visit those places devastated by the hurricane until we see real recovery.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced today new federal assistance for students and schools impacted by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the 2017 California wildfires. An additional $2.7 billion, authorized by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, will be used to help K-12 school districts and schools as well as institutions of higher education (IHEs) in their recovery efforts.
“The long road to recovery continues, but these funds should provide vital support to schools and institutions to help them return to their full capabilities as quickly and effectively as possible,” said Secretary DeVos. “I continue to be inspired every day by the dedication shown by educators, administrators and local leaders to getting students’ lives back to normal.”
Secretary DeVos has visited each of the hurricane-impacted areas and continues to be in frequent contact with education leaders as they restore their learning environments. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, the Secretary deployed more than a dozen volunteers as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Surge Capacity Force across Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Department continues to regularly send staff to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island to provide on-site assistance.
The new Federal assistance announced today will allow the Department to launch the following programs:
(1) Immediate Aid to Restart School Operations (Restart)
Under this program, the Department is authorized to award funds to eligible State educational agencies (SEAs), including those of Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas and U.S. Virgin Islands. These SEAs, in turn, will provide assistance or services to local educational agencies (LEAs), including charter schools, and private schools to help defray expenses related to the restart of operations in, the reopening of, and the re-enrollment of students in elementary and secondary schools that serve an area affected by a covered disaster or emergency.
(2) Emergency Impact Aid for Displaced Students
Under this program, the Department will award Emergency Impact Aid funding to SEAs, which, in turn, will provide assistance to LEAs for the cost of educating students enrolled in public schools, including charter schools, and private schools, who were displaced by the hurricanes during the school year 2017-2018 and California wildfires in 2017.
Congress appropriated a combined amount of approximately $2.5 billion for both the Restart and Emergency Impact Aid for Displaced Student programs. The amounts awarded under each program will be based on demand and specific data received from eligible applicants.
(3) Assistance for Homeless Children and Youth
Congress appropriated $25 million for additional grants to SEAs for LEAs to address the needs of homeless students displaced by the covered disasters and emergencies. The Department anticipates using data on displaced public school students collected under the Emergency Impact Aid program to make allocations to SEAs under the Assistance for Homeless Children and Youths program. SEAs will award subgrants to LEAs on the basis of demonstrated need. LEAs must use the funds awarded under this program to support activities that are allowable under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
(4) Emergency Assistance to Institutions of Higher Education
Congress appropriated $100 million for this program, which will provide emergency assistance to IHEs and their students in areas directly affected by the covered disasters or emergencies, for activities authorized under the Higher Education Act of 1965.
(5) Defraying Costs of Enrolling Displaced Students in Higher Education
Congress appropriated $75 million for this program, which will provide payments to IHEs to help defray the unexpected expenses associated with enrolling displaced students from IHEs directly affected by a covered disaster or emergency, in accordance with criteria to be established and made publicly available.
The Department will be sharing additional information soon, including the application packages and technical assistance, on its “Disaster Relief” webpage at https://www.ed.gov/disasterrelief.
For additional information on the programs for K-12 schools and school districts, please contact David Esquith, Director, Office of Safe and Healthy Students, at David.Esquith@ed.gov. For additional information on the programs for IHEs, please contact Adam Kissel, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Higher Education Programs, Office of Postsecondary Education, at Adam.Kissel@ed.gov.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has given six more states the thumbs-up on their plans to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act: Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Montana, and New Hampshire.
These approvals bring the grand total of approved state ESSA plans to 33, plus Puerto Rico’s and the District of Columbia’s. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia submitted plans last spring, and all but one of those states, Colorado, have been approved. Another 34 states turned in plans last fall, and so far, 18 have been approved.
So what do the approved plans look like? Below are some highlights of the state’s draft applications…
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Want to learn more about the Every Student Succeeds Act? Here’s some useful information:
Schools in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico are slowly getting to their feet, but the struggle is particularly difficult in areas outside major urban centers, as Congress and federal officials continue to work out aid packages that could help the island’s still mostly shuttered educational system.
When Hurricane Maria struck the island Sept. 20, the nearly 1,200 schools in Puerto Rico went dark, leaving about 350,000 students in the public K-12 system out of school. And many schools that began to reopen in recent weeks were operating largely as community-support centers, rather than normal instructional environments, until recently.
As of the week of Oct. 23, 119 schools had officially opened their doors for instruction in the cities of San Juan and Mayaguez, according to Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher. Some of the 190 schools on the island that had been operating as community centers since Maria have consolidated their operations.
Keleher said she hoped that approximately 150 more schools in Bayamon and Ponce (two relatively large cities in the U.S. territory) could restart classes this week.
At the moment, Keleher said her schools’ biggest need is electricity. She said she did not know how many of the schools that had opened were doing without electricity.
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