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Edwin Meléndez and Margarita Benítez.
Edwin Meléndez and Margarita Benítez. (Teresa Canino Rivera)

A study by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at New York´s Hunter College concludes that demographic changes in Puerto Rico - where enrollment in the public education system dropped 44 percent between 2006 and 2018 and 21 percent in the private school system between 2009 and 2017 - require a plan to meet children's needs. 

According to the island's demographic data, children and youth under the age of 19 make up the groups that have shrunk the most since 2009. Given this scenario, one of the government's main actions was to close public schools, said Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. 

Meléndez said that most of the closures include primary and middle schools and “that has an important impact on the island's education.” 

Closures at the end of the 2017-2018 school year impacted the island´s rural areas disproportionately, where people live below the poverty line and lack resources to move to the urban areas where schools were relocated, noted the "Population Decline and School Closure in Puerto Rico" report released yesterday. 

The report includes data on the actions implemented by the Department of Education in the face of the decrease in the number of students in schools and cuts due to the government's fiscal crisis. 

Meléndez explained that the report identified that 65 percent of the 265 closure came in rural areas compared with 35 percent in urban areas. 

Data released by the Department of Education indicate that so far during this administration, there have been 438 closures due to low student enrollment and destruction caused by Hurricane María. 

In 2006, there were 544,138 students in public schools, while by 2018 that number dropped to 306,652, according to the study. 

A similar trend was identified in the private education system. In 2009, primary schools had 155,050 students, which dropped to 122,924 students in 2017. 

Meléndez pointed out that this decrease responds to both migration and a reduction in birth rates. 

"The decline of the working-age population may lead to economic and further demographic disadvantages for Puerto Rico, especially diminished government spending on children," said the center's president. 

Interim Education Secretary Eligio Hernández said the study validates the data the agency used to make decisions in recent years. 

In fact, Hernández said the projection is to reach an enrollment of  305,000 students this year, but they will receive 294,000 in August. 

Hernández said that school consolidation policies respond to this palpable reality and to the need to make better use of resources. 

Meléndez said relocating schools in areas with larger populations brings problems for the most isolated communities, who have to travel longer distances and that may lead absenteeism which in turn may lead to high desertion rates in the future. 

He said that it is necessary to have “a more holistic approach when responding to population trends and their consequences.”