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Puerto Rico in the Great Depression

From Puerto Rico: A Guide to the Island of Boriquén
Federal Writers Project, 1940

Publishing Information
  1. The first known record relating to education in Puerto Rico may be said to be a royal order dated March 20, 1503 to Nicolás de Ovando, Governor General of the West Indies. This decree ordered that a church be built in each settlement, together with an adjoining house where children might assemble twice a day to be taught by the priest to read and write. Ponce de León complied with this royal command when he established Caparra in 1508. Five years later, the King of Spain ordered colonists to provide instruction in the Christian doctrine for the benefit of the Indians. At the same time it was ordered that native boys be taught to read and write and that the sons of caciques or chiefs be entrusted to the Franciscan friars for a four-year period of instruction, after which time they were to become the teachers of the Indian population.

  2. The first official notice of a school actually functioning in Puerto Rico is found in a memorial sent to King Phillip II, January I, 1562. For the first two hundred years, education in the Island was limited to the teaching of Christian doctrine, arts, and grammar. Classes were held in only four towns: San Juan, Arecibo, San German and Coamo. In 1782, Friar Iñigo Abbad Lasierra, author of the first history of Puerto Rico, reported a lack of educational facilities, though the first attempt at public education had been made in 1776. In 1799, four women were appointed to instruct classes for girls in San Juan.

  3. The economic and educational renaissance of Puerto Rico began with the nineteenth century. The rural school had its beginning in 1809, when General Messina established a school of agriculture and the manual arts. In 1820, the government adopted a method of instruction, formulated by Francisco Tadeo de Rivera, deputy director of schools in San Juan. At the same time, the influential Sociedad Económica de Amigos del País, founded in 1813 by Alejandro Ramírez, first treasurer of Puerto Rico, opened an institute with courses in mathematics, commerce, geography, civil law, philosophy, and drawing, which functioned for many years. In 1825, the cathedral in San Juan established a school offering courses in theology, philosophy, ethics, Latin, civil and canon law, and liturgy. These cultural centers were considered an excellent foundation for a university, which, however, did not materialize.

  4. Rafael Cordero, a poor Negro cigar maker, opened a free primary school for poor children in 1810. Cordero's teaching ability was soon recognized, and the wealthy families of San Juan sent their children to learn under him. Many Puerto Rican intellectuals of the nineteenth century received their primary education in the little school which Cordero maintained for forty-eight years.

  5. A school of 1878 is described in verses by Manuel Fernández Juncos, which may be freely translated as follows:

    They gave me a little school, and I swear by my grandmother that the dwelling of a layman has much more the appearance of a school. A dilapidated table (listen, Petra, what furnishings!) a picture of Saint Anne pasted on the wall, a chair with no back, a crucifix, a blackboard with two inscriptions—Carthage and Rome; three ferrules; a whip hanging close to the table—a long thick switch worthy the name of bludgeon; two sheets of white paper, four pens, an old inkwell and an old, lame secretary. In this school where (no joking) I earn thirty dollars a month, I teach letters and—well, after all it is teaching.

  6. In 1851 Governor Juan de la Pezuela founded the Royal Academy of Belles Lettres which was maintained until 1865, when a change of administration caused it to close. This school licensed primary school teachers, formulated school methods, and held literary contests. On February 1, 1865, all municipalities were required by order of the Governor, José Lemery, to make appropriations for rural schools. By 1897 there were 209 of these schools established throughout the Island for rich and poor children.

  7. The advancement of education in Puerto Rico owes much to the library movement begun by the early settlers with what books they brought with them. Institutional libraries have existed in the Island as early as the sixteenth century. The Convento de Santo Domingo (Dominican Friars Community) organized the first library in 1523. One hundred years later Bishop Bernardo Balbuena, poet and author of the Golden Age, a pastoral novel, and other works, established a library at the Bishopric. These libraries, together with the archives of the Episcopate, were burned by the Dutch during the siege of San Juan in 1625. Many other valuable works were lost during attacks by the English and French. The Franciscan Friars also maintained a library for over one hundred and seventy-five years, but the books disappeared when the community was dissolved in 1835. These libraries all contained valuable collections of works of art as well as books on literature and theology.

  8. The Economic Society of the Friends of the Country had an endowed library, and when the Academy of Belles Lettres was dissolved in 1865, its excellent library was donated to the Society. By 1884 this library, open to the public, possessed many of the best works of the period. The Society dissolved in 1899, and its valuable collection was distributed between the Puerto Rico Atheneum and the Insular Library.

  9. The first Insular library was established by a royal order dated June 19, 1831. It was principally a judicial library, located in San Juan. Its former collection is now owned by the Puerto Rico Bar Association.

  10. Public libraries were later established in municipalities of the Island, the first being founded in Mayagüez in 1875. The Municipal library of San Juan was opened on October 16, 1880. Ponce opened its municipal library in 1890 with books of the Reading Cabinet and the private collection of Don Miguel Rosich as a nucleus.

  11. In 1903 the Insular Government established a library in San Juan, with Don Manuel Fernández Juncos, distinguished man of letters, as librarian. Under his guidance the library was operated with modern methods. When the Carnegie Library was opened in July 1916, the Insular Library was dissolved and its collection transferred to the new building.

  12. Today, almost every town and city of consequence in the Island has a library of a sort, not comparable, however, with the libraries familiar to town and village dwellers on the mainland. Some towns have a reading room supported by municipal funds for the benefit of the public. Guayama and Fajardo have municipal school libraries, and the Department of Education maintains similar projects in other towns.

  13. Immediately following the American occupation, the school system underwent a series of modifications. Coeducation was provided for, with free schooling for all children between the ages of six and eighteen. The length of the school year was fixed, and an urban system of graded schools inaugurated. Curricula were reorganized and religious instruction in the schools eliminated. The civil institutes and normal schools were closed, and steps taken for the establishment of similar schools in accordance with modem educational methods.

  14. With the establishment of civil government in 1900, the Department of Education was formed with Dr. M. G. Braumbaugh (later governor of Pennsylvania) the first Commissioner of Education. Schools were patterned after those of the United States. A normal and industrial school was opened in Fajardo and moved to San Juan in 1901. In 1903 this normal school, which was to become the University, was transferred to Río Piedras.

  15. By 1913 the Insular Government had expended fourteen million dollars on education. Six hundred thirty graded (urban), 1,050 rural schools and four high schools had been constructed. At that time there were 1,974 teachers, and school attendance had increased to 162,000. Vocational education offered the pupil courses in agriculture, drawing, manual arts, domestic science, and music.

  16. In 1915, Dr. Paul G. Miller was appointed Commissioner of Education. With him came a change in the method of teaching, which since the American occupation had been entirely in English with Spanish treated as a special subject. Dr. Miller established Spanish as. the medium of instruction in the four lower grades, English in the three higher grades, and both English and Spanish for the middle grades. This method was used until November 1934, when Commissioner José Padín ordered that instruction be given in Spanish in all elementary grades with English taught as a special subject from the first grade.

  17. With the appointment of Dr. José M. Gallardo as Commissioner of Education in June 1937, a new school program was adopted with special stress placed on the teaching of English in accordance with the views of President Roosevelt, expressed in a letter addressed to Dr. Gallardo shortly after his appointment: "It is an indispensable part of American policy that the coming generation of American citizens in Puerto Rico grow up with complete facility in the English tongue. It is the language of our nation. Only through the acquisition of this language will Puerto Rican Americans secure a better understanding of American ideals and principles." Instruction is given in Spanish in the first two grades, with English as a subject; in the third and fourth grades the ratio is two-thirds Spanish and one-third English; in the fifth and sixth grades, half Spanish and half English; while in the seventh and eighth grades, the division is one-third Spanish and two-thirds English. The latter has always been the sole medium of instruction in secondary and higher education, with Spanish being treated as a special subject.

  18. The International Institute of Teachers College, Columbia University, surveying the schools in 1925, reported, "Out of their slender resources (one-sixth of the per capita wealth of continental United States) the people of Puerto Rico have built this monumental establishment from the ground. The history of education in continental United States shows no parallel achievement."

  19. Since 1925 significant progress has been made. The Insular Department of Education has been reorganized for greater economy and efficiency, standards have been materially raised in the administrative, supervisory, and teaching. staffs; reorganization has been effected in line with progressive ideas of education and a definite effort has been made toward realizing the social and economic objectives of the educational system.

  20. Approximately one-third of the total government revenue is devoted to education and the support of the schools. The school fund is derived from two sources: the Legislature of Puerto Rico makes an annual allotment, and the municipalities assign a portion of their revenue.

  21. The lack of educational facilities of even the most rudimentary type remains a serious problem. In 1937, with a school population estimated at over 600,000, fewer than 247,000 attended public school, and many of these for only half of the day. In other words, for every 100 children of school age, only 41 went to school at all.

  22. Puerto Rico has two distinct types of elementary schools—urban and rural. The urban schools are organized on a basis of eight years' elementary and four years' high-school instruction. The curriculum comprises the common: school subjects, including manual training, home economics, agriculture, and health and physical education. Spanish and English are regularly included as subjects. The Island had 269 urban elementary schools in 1938, with an enrollment of 114,068.

  23. The organization in rural zones provides for first and second units. The rural first unit organization is planned for the first four years or grades and leads to the second unit, which offers four years of work. In 1937 there were 1,370 rural elementary schools, with an enrollment of 117,119.

  24. The principal purpose of the first unit school is to provide rural children with a primary education and fit them for admission to the second unit schools or further academic work. These second unit schools are pre-vocational, offering courses in pre-vocational agriculture, gardening, industrial arts, handicrafts, trades, and social work.

  25. In 1937 the second unit schools totaled 67, with an enrollment of 11,101. These are consolidated vocational schools that enroll children above the third grade and offer, in addition to the usual academic subjects, instruction in agriculture, home economics, and handicrafts. The purpose of these schools is to raise the standard of living in rural communities and to increase the productive capacity of the land. The academic work includes English and Spanish history, geography, citizenship, nature study, and physical education. Vocational courses for boys include agriculture, tin work, carpentry, shoe repairing, electricity, auto mechanics, and other subjects. For girls, vocational courses include needlework, basketry, weaving, seed-work, embroidery, lace making, cooking, and other domestic crafts.

  26. Each second unit school has at least five acres of ground for practical work in agriculture, and pupils working on an agricultural project are given one-third of the net proceeds of the crop. The school farm or garden supplies the school lunchroom with vegetables and meats for the table. A subsidiary purpose of the domestic science program is to persuade rural families to adopt a well-balanced diet, based largely on native products.

  27. The agricultural program offers day and evening. classes. In the former, instruction in seasonal projects is given to groups of young men who have left school and desire to enter farming. The evening classes are for adult farmers who have started or plan to start certain farm projects which thus constitute the basis of the course; An important feature of the second unit is the social worker who visits the rural homes and gives parents and pupils advice on health, social, and educational matters. The second unit also serves as a social community center. During the evening, a reading room is open for the benefit of pupils and parents, and on Sundays lectures are given for the public in which representatives of the various government departments take part.

  28. The Island had 25 high schools in 1937, with an enrollment of 11,318, not including the one operated by the University of Puerto Rico as the practice school for teachers in training. The secondary schools, like the elementary schools, are undergoing fundamental curriculum changes. Congress on March 3, 1931, extended to Puerto Rico the benefits of the Smith and Hughes Vocational Educational Act, and all supplementary acts. In accordance with this legislation, $105,000 is appropriated annually for the purpose of co-operating with Puerto Rico in the promotion of vocational agriculture, trade and industrial education, home economics, and in the training of teachers for these fields. With the extension of the George-Deen law, an additional appropriation of $254,752 annually is made available for this work. These schools have an enrollment of 7,275 pupils who are taught by 361 teachers.

  29. Trade and industrial education, under the terms of the Vocational Educational Act, is taught in all-day vocational schools of unit type at San Juan, Mayagüez, and Ponce, and eight of the larger towns. Among the trades taught are machine-shop work, electricity, auto mechanics, printing and linotype operation, carpentry, cabinet-making, needlework, radio engineering, and ceramics. As part of the industrial and trade program, a vocational course for household employees is offered to girls.

  30. The Department of Education is engaged in working out a balanced program for physical education whereby every child will take part in some form of activity. Calisthenics, school plays, songs, folklore, handball, volleyball, and basketball are emphasized in the elementary grades. In the high schools, baseball, basketball, and volleyball are popular.

  31. The school lunch, primarily a relief measure, is an important adjunct of the school system. The schools under the Department of Education have developed the school lunch period, not only as a means of feeding needy and hungry children, but also to teach cleanliness, health, courtesy, and table manners. Emphasis is placed on the desirability of a varied diet and the use of vegetables. The lunchroom is usually an open pavilion with built-in tables made by the class in carpentry or manual training. Usually the pupil pays for the meals in service or food, or at the rate of one cent per meal.

  32. School health clubs, agricultural and community clubs, as well as school bands, are conducted much the same as they are on the mainland.

  33. In 1938, there were 53 private schools in the Island accredited by the Department of Education, with an enrollment of 10,862. These schools are usually in large urban centers, San Juan having 20 of them. A majority are parochial, most of them affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. The courses offered range from kindergarten through college. There were in addition 16 non-accredited private elementary and kindergarten and 7 commercial schools.

  34. Higher education is centered in the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, which, with the exception of the Tropical School of Medicine in San Juan, has placed more emphasis on teaching than on research and publication. The Polytechnic Institute at San Germán offers liberal arts and pre-professional training. The College of the Sacred Heart maintains a School of Liberal Arts.

  35. According to the census of 1935, of the total number of persons of school age (5 to 20), 38.8 per cent had attended school or college at some time during the school year, as compared with only 6.7 per cent in 1899. In 1935, of the population 10 years old or over, 64.9 per cent reported themselves able to read and write. Illiteracy increased in the upper age levels, showing the results of the gradual expansion of school facilities since 1899, and was much more frequent in rural areas.

  36. In spite of the remarkable increase in the percentage of children attending school today as compared with the Spanish era, this increase is in danger of being nullified by the tremendous growth in population. The tragic fact remains that today only about two-fifths of Puerto Rican children of school age have the opportunity of securing an elementary education. This places Puerto Rico in a class by itself among United States Territories, and will remain a present threat to democracy until such time as the American ideal of universal education can be made effective.