By Hilyarit Santiago-Robles
On Friday, January 11th, we had the opportunity to meet with the director of the Superhero Foundation in Puerto Rico. The director, Soammy Hernández Acevedo and her son Alfredo Ríos, informed us about the situation of the Department of Education and its decision to shutter a large amount of schools in the island. We also discussed the Foundation’s most recent project in the city of Aguadilla to retrofit a closed school to provide therapy for students with developmental disabilities.
The Superhero Foundation in Puerto Rico is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing free services to children with special needs such as autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other deficiencies in development. Puerto Rico has over 100,000 children with special needs, but only a fraction receive services from the government. The Superhero Foundation aims to provide services to those who have been denied services by the government. Some of the services offered include aquatic therapy, evaluation and visual therapy, orthodontist, language speech therapies, psychological, educational dysphagia, Integrated Listening System, reading, and more.
One of the sectors most affected by Puerto Rico’s financial crisis has been public education. Between 2007 and 2016, 230 schools in Puerto Rico were closed, an acceleration of a decades-long trend. Low enrollment of students continues to be the main cause of these closures. The number of schools closed across Puerto Rico now surpasses 500 as the island has lost 157,000 students. On top of Puerto Rico’s financial situation, exacerbated by the island’s recession in 2006, other factors affecting school closure include low birth rate on the island and the increase in out-migration (especially of women at reproductive ages) The number of closed schools across Puerto Rico further increased due to poor forecasting. Between the years 2000 to 2010, it was thought that Puerto Rico’s population would increase and more schools were built, but in reality the population declined.
The closure of schools affects communities. In the vast majority of cases, schools are a cultural and economic hub in their communities. When schools close, they get vandalized and the value of the properties around them decrease and may even create a security problem.
Because of the vast school closures, on May 9, 2017, Executive Order 032 was established to evaluate the transfer of closed school buildings to municipalities and organizations that promote community and economic development on the island. Some ways being considered for closed schools under consideration are as temporary emergency housing, homeless shelters, rescue centers, therapy workshops, place of tutoring, places of refuge for victims of abuse, and as a hub for the development of community microenterprises. Although the closing of schools continues to be a crisis, they also represent an opportunity. There has been an increase in the cost of labor in Puerto Rico by 40%, and simultaneously, the cost of materials are also increasing, making building from scratch an increasingly difficult prospect and repurposing existing buildings more promising.
During our visit with the Superhero Foundation, we visited a closed school in the Playuela sector of Aguadilla that was recently signed over to the Foundation. This school is one of the many that the government closed on the island. The Foundation also received an acre of land in front of the school. The Foundation envisions is the school being transformed into classrooms, therapeutic pools, gardening spaces, and accessible parks for children born with special needs from 4 months to adulthood.
On our walk through the school we saw that it has great potential for providing additional services. In times of need, the community of Playuela could benefit from these resources. For example, below the school, there are water channels that flow into a nearby beach that also has a well, to which this community had access to water after being hit by Hurricane María. Another possibility would be the installation of solar panels on the school’s flat roof. These two micro-infrastructure systems could transform the school into an oasis, making it a hub for resilience available not only to the people who receive the school's services, but to the neighboring community as well.
Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria provides new opportunities to provide critical services to communities. In our visit with the Superhero Foundation, we saw how closed schools can be repurposed to serve children with disabilities while simultaneously making communities more resilient. Integrating renewable energy further aligns projects like this to create local infrastructure for community resilience. During our visit, I saw connections with other parts of our trip. One example of a project that may be key in these interventions is the Community Solar Energy Initiative from Resilient Power Puerto Rico (RPPR) which they have built in many parts of the island. These projects provide services to communities throughout the Islands including technical and financial assistance. This effort is made possible by direct donations of solar energy systems in communities most impacted by Hurricane Maria.