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Minimal the Government Investment in Physical Education

Limited resources, overworked teachers, and abandoned recreational areas are part of the challenges faced by an academic program that for years has been a source of talent and international medals for Puerto Rico.

February 29, 2024

Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

When basketball is played at the Dr. Juan José Manuez Pimentel High School in the south coast town of Naguabo, Rodiel Robles, who is in the eleventh grade, gets motivated. “School is the same all the time,” says the boy. He is wearing the shirt of the last team that represented the school in an interscholastic tournament. Rodiel, who is sitting on a court bench, wears the name of his school on his chest. It’s almost six in the afternoon on a Wednesday.

“[In Naguabo] there are no basketball teams, only the school team, and when they play, that’s what motivates me the most to come [to classes]. Although I don’t like coming to school, I try to find the balance [when there’s basketball],” he says.

It’s when he has a basketball in his hands, that Rodiel transforms. But in the court where he practices physical education, the Department of Education´s (DE), budget basketball does not score.

The public schools Physical Education Program  receives about $400,000 annually from the DE budget, which in 2023-2024 was $2.6 billion. That is, only 0.015% of the agency’s budget goes to physical education. If you divide that number by 851 schools, it is less than $500 annually for each school, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) found.

This year, the Physical Education Program ran with a 15% reduction in its budget compared to the funds allocated in 2021. The budget, $359,700, must be distributed to meet the needs of all schools, which according to Act 85, known as the Educational Reform of 2018, must guarantee a minimum of three hours of physical education per week to all students.

The CPI denounced in 2022 that, four years after the Educational Reform, the DE does not have a unique process to calculate the cost per student. Act 85 established that no less than 70% of the agency’s budget should be earmarked for “direct services” for students in public schools.

After two years of failing to comply with the requirement to send reports on the distribution of its funds to the Legislative Assembly, the DE provided information in February of this year after the Citizen Victory Movement (MVC, in Spanish) Rep. José Bernardo Márquez, sued the agency. According to the documents provided, the DE claims that it allocated more than 70% of its budget from federal funds, the general fund and state special funds to its students starting in the 2018-2019 fiscal year. The legislator indicated that the Commission would oversee validating this information.

Meanwhile, nonprofit organization Espacios Abiertos indicated that it conducted an analysis of the data provided by the DE and concluded that the agency has only allocated between 57.5% and 63.5% of its consolidated budget to provide direct services to students.

The Physical Education Program’s annual budget is used, for the most part, to purchase awards and recognitions for outstanding athletes, office materials, technical equipment, to pay for refereeing and transportation, as well as the basic materials that can be covered with the money allocated. This reduced budget means that there are teachers without enough balls or with damaged equipment.

The Physical Education Program’s sports calendar handles more than 10 disciplines a year, so the support of external institutions, such as sports federations, becomes essential for its existence. This assistance is not recurring, which keeps the program in a state of constant vulnerability and limitation.

For example, the International Association Football Federation (FIFA in English), through the FIFA Football for Schools Program, currently oversees everything related to school soccer through the Puerto Rican Football Federation, including refereeing. Without that support, soccer would hardly be played in the public system.

The CPI learned that since 2021, the DE has submitted a plan to use nearly $38 million in federal emergency funds to purchase sports equipment and supplies through the Physical Education Program. The U.S. Department of Education approved it in November of that same year. It was a record number for that program. The Active Zone Project consists of acquiring materials, technological and sports equipment for all physical education teachers and modified physical education to address physical inactivity due to past natural disasters. Some 846 electronic panels were delivered to integrate technology, but sports materials and equipment have not yet been purchased, although according to the agency, last year “they went through the competitive process and are in the contracting phase.” The plan for the use of these emergency funds expires on September 30, 2024, the agency confirmed.

The Physical Education Program is divided into three phases: academic, which is limited to the course as a required subject at all levels and grades; intramural, which organizes and develops activities for students from the same school; and interscholastic, for competitive activities among two or more schools. Even without having a field in optimal conditions and with all the limitations that for years have forced them to work with minimum ones, the Dr. Juan José Maunez Pimentel High School, in Naguabo, addresses all phases of the Physical Education Program.

For example, students currently participate in an intramural basketball tournament. They are teams of three players. They compete after 3 p.m. The teacher works as a referee. It is part of the after-school hours activities, although it is also played mid-day.

“We’re carrying out a “three on three” basketball competition among ourselves to spend time as a family, have a good time,” Alexis Hernández, a 12th-grade student, told the CPI. “Distracting the mind, a little, that’s the important thing,” added Luis Miguel García Santiago, a 10th-grade student.

This reality is coupled with the infrastructure challenges on many school grounds, where there are hardly any suitable facilities. The students shared photos on social media, which became, on their own, a classroom for everyone who saw them.

“Right now, because of our protest, they’re building our court [almost] eight years after Hurricane María,” said Gian del Rey, a student at the Gilberto Concepción de Gracia School in Carolina, on his Tik Tok account.

@giandellreyyyy

Me uno a los reclamos de los compañeros estudiantes. Es vital que como jovenes nos expremos y hagamos sentir nuestra voz. Si es necesario tener que grabar todas las escuelas para que las arreglen así se hará. Nosotros en la Gilberto protestamos y ya nos están arreglando la cancha ¿o fue pura casualidad otra vez?

♬ sonido original – Gian Del Rey

Powering through in tough circumstances

The basketball court at the Dr. Juan José Maunez Pimentel High School, in Naguabo, is also a classroom. But it’s an inadequate classroom in which students play basketball with a single basket and in which sitting on the benches or playing full court is dangerous. One of the columns that supports part of the court’s roof has been detached for six years, because of Hurricane María. Even so, people play and study there because there are barely any facilities suitable for playing sports in the Municipality.

Just as the school semester is starting, the threat on this campus remains despite the multiple efforts that the faculty and its director, Rosa A. Rivera Jaime, have made in recent years with the DE’s Humacao Educational Region and the Public Buildings Authority.

Engineer José M. Green Ruiz inspected the school on January 23, 2020, after the earthquakes that rattled Puerto Rico, and recommended opening it partially. He instructed them to “enter the school area and classrooms, but not the indoor court,” according to the official document. Inside the school grounds there are almost no green areas. Cement predominates in the interior courtyard. The main entrance has been closed for years. Without the court, spending a day in the hallways or under the sun is an undertaking of massive proportions on an island where temperatures have been rising.

The Dr. Juan José Maunez Pimentel High School basketball court.
Photo by José M. Encarnación Martínez | Center for Investigative Journalism

In order to use the court, it is necessary to “fix and reinforce” the steel bars and their columns that have been loose since Hurricane María, engineer Green Ruiz warned after an inspection of the entire school that reflected seismic vulnerability.

The Maunez Pimentel School is the only high school in Naguabo and its infrastructure has been unattended since before the impact of hurricanes Irma and María in 2017. Mold on the walls, peeling paint, and lack of general maintenance give it the appearance of an abandoned building, even though some 400 students were enrolled there for this academic year.

In response to this reality, students gathered at the school gates when classes restarted in January. They demanded action from the government, and personnel from the educational region visited the school. Even the Secretary of the DE, Yanira I. Raíces Vega, showed up on campus in January and promised to solve the problem. After the complaints, some paint work began at the school.

The graduation rate at this school is 83%, a figure that contrasts with 75% islandwide through 2023, according to DE data. This almost heroic success, but difficult to replicate, largely depends on the activities that the faculty organizes on the court, as a strategy to retain students and prevent school dropouts. The school has stories of sporting triumph. Major league baseball player Martín “Machete” Maldonado and Olympic gymnast Luis Rivera graduated from here.

But now “there’s a lot of competition out on the street,” warned physical education teacher Javier Hérnandez, stressing there are too many “things [that are] more attractive out there.” Competing with sports is the students’ attachment to mobile devices and video games, as well as other factors that limit practicing sports.

“We have a population at school, but our experiences are limited because we don’t have facilities and we don’t have a way to take students to different activities outside of school,” said Hérnandez. Yes, students have missed competitive events because transportation does not arrive, even when they make the corresponding arrangements with the DE and the Municipality.

However, even with these challenges and limitations, school sports at this school are a key transformational tool. It is a way to educate but, above all, to offer development alternatives in a municipality where 48% of people live below the poverty level, according to Census Bureau data for 2023.

Basketball teams of different categories are organized from this high school. There are volleyball teams and even chess representation. Everything is organized through the Physical Education Program, without hiring coaches or assistants by discipline, contrary to what happens in other institutions in Puerto Rico, mainly in the private sector.

Playing sports is also a way to retain students in school longer, according to the physical education teacher and the principal of this high school. And the Physical Education Program survives due to teacher efforts.

“Every day we see more needs in young people, not only in the economic area, but in the social-affective area,” said Hernández, noting the emotional impact that different tournaments have on the school community. They are activities that are not limited to competition. “Sports and, above all, physical education are key to connecting with the kids in multiple ways, offering the greatest number of experiences inside and outside of school,” he added.

Hernández is one of approximately 1,800 physical education teachers who, at the beginning of the school year, were part of the DE program. Each educational region is responsible for scheduling and programming their respective sports and recreational activities, based on the budget assigned at the central level for the discipline.

Maximizing the reach of the Physical Education Program is a task that often becomes a heavy burden, as it falls on the shoulders of teachers who face constant uncertainty about each school’s budget. At this Naguabo school, it is a feat to get sports uniforms and then keep them for as long as possible. It also becomes a heroic deed to get materials, whether they are donated, used or old, says the teacher. “At the end of the day they are resources to keep the kids happy.”

Hernández has been a teacher in the public school system for 20 years. In his mind, being a physical education teacher “is a task that’s taken on out of commitment and passion” and “although it’s very hard and increasingly sacrificed, we do the best we can.”

José Juan Pérez is also a physical education teacher at the school. He began last year and came from the private school sector. “You get hit with reality. There are no suitable facilities, the infrastructure isn’t in good shape and the kids become unmotivated, and it’s often hard to motivate them to continue forward.”

As established in the Procedures Manual for this subject, the physical education teacher is responsible for coordinating participation in activities with the school director, as well as getting students’ classes and homework completed. They must also coordinate to complete the documentation related to student participation with the director.

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