Serving the Underserved in Puerto Rico

Dr. Maria Rosa Bruno, University High School – University of Puerto Rico

by Celeste Suris-Rosselli, Baldwin School of Puerto Rico

It has long been acknowledged the inequity that exists in the public school system, a fact that could not be more true of the public school system in Puerto Rico. Not tied to property taxes or limited to geography, the public school system on the island was centralized upon its inception to provide more consistency in access and instruction. Decades later, the centralized system continues to face significant decline.

It was the disparity of the system that inspired DJ Meehan, Director of College Counseling at Saint John’s School, to seek out SACAC’s support. Together, we pitched the first Mini-Camp College event held in August of 2019. With the support of current and past SACAC members Giselle Martin, Karen Vargas, Joe Latimer, Claudia Marroquin, Jimmy Suarez, Yamilette Medina-López Danita Salone, Carolina Echevería, Marilina Matta, Claire Oxford, and Jessika García we held two mini-camp college sessions. We were excited and looking ahead to Mini-Camp College 2020 but the pandemic paused our plans. This allowed us to see how we could improve on the program’s initial success.

Enter Dr. Maria Rosa Bruno.

Mari Rosa is the heart of the college counseling department at the University High School, the laboratory high school for the University of Puerto Rico(UPR). This public school serves about 500 students from 7th to 12th grade, and it offers dual enrollment courses as part of the college preparatory program. UHS was created so that the students in the university’s education department could do their practicum and develop new ideas, launch projects, and conduct research. Prospective students must pass a rigorous battery of exams similar to the college admissions process of the UPR to gain admission, making UHS one of the most competitive schools on the island. Notable alumni include two former mayors of San Juan, Hector Luis Acevedo and Carmen Yulin Cruz; current coach of the Boston Red Sox, Alex Cora; and celebrated Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos.

DJ and I knew Mari Rosa for years as our paths crossed at dozens of counselor events. As we looked to expand the program, we knew that Mari Rosa would be an essential ally.  Though not a member of our organization, Mari Rosa has long felt the support of members. Karen Vargas, Mario Silva-Rosa, Marie Nocella, and Julie Maloney took the road less traveled and helped her increase the number of students who pursue their education in the mainland.

It was this experience that led to Mari Rosa joining our team, and for the past year, we’ve met to plan the next phase of Mini-Camp College. This newfound partnership with UHS and the UPR’s education and counseling departments will help us expand our outreach to students like those at UHS and other underserved communities. Together, we want to broaden their access to public schools on the island and expand their recruitment efforts, as well as connect with them and their families.

Colleges can start to bridge this divide by learning more about how the system works and what college options students have available. The island has a strong college-going culture, but finances keep many students from going away when more affordable options are available to them within our state and private college system. The PAA is a College Board entrance exam similar to the SAT and used for admission in Puerto Rico and at Fordham University, NYU, Bentley University, Assumption University, University of Connecticut, University of Texas at El Paso, and Temple University.  In PR, students in the public school system take the PAA for free twice before their senior year, and on average, 2,000 sit for the SAT while close to 30,000 take the PAA.

Community-based organizations like the Kinesis Foundation and their Bright Stars program have made inroads in offering students in underserved communities guidance during the college search process. Community programs like Caminando Con Caimito and POSSE’s new partnership with Bard College and the Lin-Manuel Miranda Foundation hope to increase mainland college-going rates.

Getting to know the PAA, the history of the public school system, and connecting with counselors like Mari Rosa are key ways our organization will be vital in opening doors to students in Puerto Rico.

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