2/28/08

Striking teachers shout leftist slogans

Empty classrooms, educators clashing with police, anxious students — a weeklong teachers strike in Puerto Rico is dealing a blow to a public school system already struggling to reach U.S. benchmarks and reduce the highest dropout rate in America.

The union that represents the island's 42,000 public school teachers declared the strike on Feb. 20 after 30 months of negotiations to increase salaries and address shortages of books, computers and other materials reached a deadlock. The government of this U.S. island territory is refusing to return to the table until the walkout ends.

On Wednesday, there was little sign that the strike is fizzling.

Protesters jeered teachers who insisted on going to their classrooms, even as many students stayed home. Riot police from the special Tactical Operations Unit were guarding several schools, said Benjamin Rodriguez, the unit's director.

In the western city of Mayaguez, students protested outside a school to demand that teachers return to the classroom. In San Juan, about 300 people demonstrated outside the Department of Labor in support of the strike.

The walkout may force students to catch up during the scorching Caribbean summer — if the semester isn't lost completely.

Elizabeth Herrera, an 18-year-old senior at the Gabriela Mistral school in San Juan, worried the strike will keep her from graduating on time.

"They say this will help things, but it's not helping anything," Herrera said. "It's hurting us."

The strike comes as the U.S. Education Department, which funds Puerto Rico's education system, is demanding better results from public schools attended by more than half a million students — most of whom live below the poverty line.

U.S. Deputy Education Secretary Raymond Simon has warned that many are not learning "basic and essential skills," noting that island students are behind low-income students on the U.S. mainland in standardized math tests.

Puerto Rican public school students did not take national English-language reading tests for fourth- and eighth-graders because classes here are in Spanish.

The high school graduation in Puerto Rico rate is 60 percent, although some experts say it is higher because some students transfer to school on the U.S. mainland. The U.S. national average is 80 percent.

Some parents accused strikers of being selfish, even though many support their demand to raise teachers' starting yearly base salary of $19,200 — about a third less than the mainland average.

Omayra Sebastian, whose two children attend a public school in the western coastal town of Boqueron, said they have been unsettled by news footage of clashes between police and picketers.

"There is a lot of uncertainty," Sebastian said. "They are always asking what is going to happen with their school."

The strike has not affected private schools, which are attended by 27 percent of Puerto Rican students.

(ap.google.com)

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