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CARIBBEAN BUSINESS THURSDAY, JANUARY 26, 2012

‘We have to break this cycle’
Sapientis pushes 10-year education plan immune from politics and driven by vision of ‘the student we want’; nonprofit out to impact public policy
BY JOHN MARINO

marino@caribbeanbusinesspr.com

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s Sapientis celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, the nonprofit—dedicated to improving the quality of public education in Puerto Rico—is spearheading a drive to have all three political parties support a call for a 10-year education plan. Working in conjunction with several other groups, the idea is to have all three parties commit to approving the proposal so a sustained effort to reform Puerto Rico’s public schools can occur. A number of officials from the academic community and the larger society are supporting the effort. “We can’t continue to plan education for four-year periods. We have to break this cycle,” Sapientis Executive Director Laura López told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. “We want the plan to have the power of law so that no matter who is in power, it will have to be carried out.” The politicization of the local school system has been called one of its biggest challenges by everyone from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to local labor leaders to current and former Education top brass. The 10-year plan is being promoted as the best way to begin curing this ill and bring about meaningful reform of the public schools. “If you keep interrupting the education plan every four years and reinstituting a new one, there is no way you can have results,” López added. “It’s a very important step. It will do a lot to combat the politicization of the system, which is fatal.” Since its founding in 2002, the group has dedicated itself to spreading awareness about the importance of public education to Puerto Rico’s

Sapientis Executive Director Laura López argues that improving public education should be a priority of all sectors in Puerto Rico, including the business community.

for Community Development), which last year established a portrait of the kind of student a broad crosssection of community and education leaders believe should be graduating from local public schools. That profile includes students who not only have reached the appropriate academic skill levels, but also know how to think critically, reason quantitatively, master problem solving and scientific reasoning processes, and understand that learning and self-evaluation are lifelong processes. The ideal graduate, according to the profile, also includes being an effective communicator, possessing entrepreneurial skills, being a wellrounded person with developed principles and values as well as academic knowledge, and being an active member of the community. “It’s essential to have a profile of the type of student we want graduating from public schools,” López said. “It allows us to do backward planning, to develop the curriculum we need to teach for a student to attain these skills.”

social and economic future. With the vast majority of public schools performing below federal standards, a preponderance of students failing to meet proficiency in English, Spanish and math, and a huge dropout rate, the group argues that improving local public schools should be everybody’s problem. “Until we have an informed citizenry, demanding the kind of education that is possible in this country, we will continue to leave the system to those who are running it for their own benefit, and allow students to graduate with enormous deficiencies,” López said. “The priority has to be economic development. We are all in agreement with that. Yet, are our public school students graduating ready to

face competition, and with the skills today’s labor market demands? We know that is not the case,” she added. Currently, Sapientis is fleshing out the 10-year education plan with input from other organizations and the Citizen’s Agenda initiative, through which community groups are developing position statements on a number of significant issues to have an impact on public policy. The plan’s main thrust is to establish the kind of curriculum that will lead to producing students prepared for today’s academic and economic challenges. To do that, its drafters are looking to Universidad del Sagrado Corazón’s Instituto de Política Educativa para el Desarrollo Comunitario (Educational Policy Institute

SAPIENTIS’ THIRD EVOLUTION
The push for the 10-year plan, slated to be presented next month to leaders of the local political parties, is part of the latest focus of the organization, which has gone through three phases in its decadelong existence. Founded by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government graduates Kristin Ehrgood and Vadim Nikitine, the group started life in 2002 with the idea of training teachers along the lines of the Teach for America program, where Ehrgood had held several important positions. That program selects the best graduating students from universities, trains them and then
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places them for two years in public schools. In Puerto Rico, Sapientis trained 40 teachers, having an impact on 3,000 children in 28 schools in 16 districts, but the program was a tough sell given the “horrible system” of hiring teachers in Puerto Rico, López said. “With the bureaucracy of the Education Department, and the Teachers Association and Teachers Federation putting up roadblocks, we decided to change course and develop a leadership program,” she added. Sapientis’ second phase, which began in 2006, involved training more than 800 people, including students, teachers, directors, parents and other members of school councils, to become leaders and “agents of change” within the public school system. Some 35 teachers, directors and librarians implemented initiatives to improve their school districts, and Sapientis began an extended engagement with the school community in the Luis Llorens Torres public housing project in San Juan, which has five elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. Sapientis, which prides itself on receiving no funding from the Education Department, entered into agreements with each school council to provide after-school training to students and other community members. At the same time, the group worked with each school council, comprising parents, teachers, the school director, students and other members of the school community, to more effectively take control of the management of their schools. The effort, which is still ongoing, has also resulted in several projects at the targeted schools. At República de Perú middle school, for example, students, who were tired of hearing only negative things about their community, launched their own news magazine, while Ramón Power y Giralt high school students reopened the school library, which had been closed for years because of building problems, termites and rats. In Barrio Obrero’s Albert Einstein school in San Juan, which was also inspired by the Sapientis program, students created a garden of native plants and trees with the help of

Sapientis has mobilized an army of volunteers to press for improvements to Puerto Rico’s public education system.

the Fideicomiso de Conservación (Conservation Trust), Universidad Politécnica and Fundación Ángel Ramos. “These projects instilled great pride in students, and this has also had an impact on their academic achievements,” López said, noting that students involved in the program had higher test scores.

PUBLIC POLICY IMPACT
While these efforts go on, Sapientis shifted focus again in 2008 to try to bring direct changes to public education policy in Puerto Rico. Throughout 2009, the group began work on a long-term education plan, unifying the eight that the Education Department had at the time into one, and setting priorities. It also pushed to have a permanent council, composed of education, government and community officials, to give structure and continuity to those plans. Those efforts are now being directed toward the 10-year education plan the group wants all three political parties to support. Sapientis also created the Coalición por la Equidad y Calidad Educativa (CECE) (Coalition for Equal & Quality Education), which groups together individuals committed to improving the quality of Puerto Rico’s public education. “We went from the micro to the macro. It’s not the ‘Occupy’ movement, but we are creating a
Sapientis volunteer Nitza Pagán, right, talks to attorney Omayra Rodríguez, who works with Rep. Jaime Perelló Borrás (PDP-at large), about a study the group undertook on Puerto Rico’s school directors.

movement to improve public education here,” added Yasmín Veléz Sánchez, Sapientis mobilization director. The army of volunteers Sapientis has signed up to fight for better public education numbers more than 1,200. CECE members keep abreast of public education developments, advocate for change at all levels and discuss the importance of public education in creating a sustainable, prosperous Puerto Rico. At the same time, the group has developed working relationships with more than 25 lawmakers, to educate them about the important issues in public education through regularly scheduled meetings. Finally, Sapientis has shifted its training focus from teachers and

students to school directors. Part of this is for strategic reasons, since it is much easier for the group to reach out to 1,500 directors than the tens of thousands of teachers or hundreds of thousands of students in Puerto Rico’s public school system. The group also believes the focus will be effective, since it has found that all successful schools in Puerto Rico have strong school directors. “We are focusing more on working with school directors because we believe this is a fundamental way to improve the public education system,” López said. “The director is like the CEO, the Richard Carrión of a school. If he or she does not have the skills and capacities, or the support or time, we can’t expect our schools to do well.”

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