From Private to Public Schools

Written by Alexandra Román

Their best heritage is an education,” said once an ex-Secretary of Education in Puerto Rico, in response to a question someone asked him as to why his children were in private school versus public.

On a personal level, I remember that my mother used to say that although she was not a rich woman, while reflecting on her legacy once she passes on and contemplating she will not leave us any sizable amount of “herencia”, that her legacy would be the education that she helped my brother and me forge.

Fast forwarding to what really made me write about this topic, you should know that for the past seven years my daughter has only attended private school. We could afford it, so we paid it. Given an unfortunate bullying scenario where another classmate cut her hair and I did not learn about it until another parent told me, I decided to look for another school for her.  Of course I was only considering alternate private schools, never public ones.

Then came the downturn of the economy in Puerto Rico and we had little choice than to look for public school for both our children. As you can imagine, I was extremely concerned. Take the ongoing strikes, prevalent teachers’ absences or not having enough teachers, the poor building structures, and the possible hostile student environment and I did not know whether my kids were going to fit well into the public school system scheme.

My search began with phone calls to our local schools. To my anguish, most of them were full and I was placed on waiting lists with the exception off three where they asked me to go in person to complete the waiting lists. Of course, the process was not going to be an easy one. Two of the school had space for my five year old, but not my eleven year old. When I got to the first school my intuition told me that something was not right. The guard that typically greets visitors at the school gate was sitting comfortably chatting with whom I presumed to be a teacher. She asked curtly what business brought me to the school and, upon hearing my answer, sent me to the office gesturing with her finger.

The scene was disheartening. The building to my left was under construction, while the one to my right needed some painting and cleaning. When I got to the office –at five minutes to one in the afternoon- the secretary told me that I had to wait for she was still on her lunch break. Apparently she had started her lunch hour late. Smiling politely, I waited standing beside the door entrance. All the while that awful discomforting gut feeling kept creeping back from within me. During the time that I waited, I peeked through the plastic screen of the door. I spotted the kinder area where my five year old would be if he were to attend this school. It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. A puddle covered the playing area, a fence surrounded it making it looked like a prison cell. A man came out of the principal’s office and I heard the principal ask some children why they had started a fight. He proceeded to stand beside the secretary’s desk, without any cordiality, gave me a cold stare and turned his attention to his cell phone.  My heart sank even deeper and a desire to cry pressed on my throat, so I decided to leave. As I was exiting the office the secretary was unexpectedly there, “Mamá, I can help you now,” she said. “I’ll be back later, I have an emergency,” was my response. I calmed down inside my car after calling my husband, who told me, “This is not the one for us, go see the next one. Maybe, it will be better.”

While driving to the second school, I told myself that not all of the public schools could be like that, not that the private school where I had my daughter was state of the art either. Mercifully, the second school was a huge improvement from the first. This time around, the guard asked how she can help me before opening the gate, and then escorted me to the office where a volunteer mom happily wrote my daughter’s name on the waiting list. Upon not finding the list for Kinder Garden, she summoned a teacher who gladly took me to the kinder grounds. On my way there I got the chance to see the whole school. It was serene, clean and my escort even asked two kids why they were out of their classrooms. The kinder area was bursting with color and educational materials and the classroom had air conditioning. “This might be it, hopefully they will call, I said to myself when I left.”

The third school was also quiet, clean and had a small theater.  Most of the classrooms were air conditioned, which is a most welcome luxury if you live in Puerto Rico.  The guard at the gate was very polite and so was the secretary who remembered I called a few days back and whose kids were in private school. Although I was just there to enroll my five year old in kinder, she gave me the chance to also enroll my daughter for sixth grade. I was very happy with the turn of events because this school was way better than the first one. However, if the second school called, I would go there in a heartbeat.

“Son cosas del destino,” my Godmother constantly says to me. As a matter of fact it was, a few weeks later the third school called to schedule an evaluation for my five year old. On the day of our appointment, I was surprised when I saw the teacher; she was my grandmother’s neighbor whom I had known since I was in high school. She explained to me that she would be my daughter’s gym teacher and that the school, as part of their curriculum, teaches drama classes at the theater I saw beside the school grounds. Listening her speak about the school put aside my motherly fears. At least I knew someone in the school that would keep an eye on my kids. Turns out there where more people that I knew and had their children there that reassured me that the school was a good choice. Their feedback was very positive. My son and daughter have started their school year at this public school and I’ve had three parents-teacher meetings. At my daughter’s prior private school I had none. The concerns and reservations that my husband and I had at the start public school search, were gone after learning from the teachers that my daughter was fitting in nicely and completing her work enthusiastically. She is not being bullied or cast aside; she found new friends, loves theater class and gym, which she disliked in the past. In addition, her grades have not been affected by the change.

It is hard to imagine that a once grueling thought became a pleasant reality, especially for my husband and I who both attended public schools. We should have known better. Our children were attending public school and the transition was a great experience for our family. Their education is neither decadent nor subpar. As parents, our priority for our kids, besides giving them a loving and happy family environment to grow in, is their education. It has not been compromised, like once thought, by having them enrolled in public schools because we have not surrendered our involvement in their curriculum. What a great legacy for our kids!

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Pa’lante Latino showcases current events in the arts, entertainment, politics, and culture as it affects our community. Above all, we are ferocious advocates of the contributions that Hispanics/Latinos have made to the United States and feature articles based on historical facts to reaffirm our relevance.Please feel free to email us at info@palantelatino.com.
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