Since 2000, the nonprofit organization Nuestra Escuela has tackled the issue of school dropouts through alternative education. Their model doesn't just focus on academic and intellectual development, it also addresses the emotional, social, physical and spiritual needs of the students.
Many young people who attend Nuestra Escuela come from disadvantaged, unstable, and even violent backgrounds, are teen parents, or were simply unsuccessful in adapting to traditional schools. That's why Nuestra Escuela, which is part of the public school system of Puerto Rico and in 17 years has impacted the lives of over 1600 students, adapts to their learning styles and interests. This innovative approach allows them to earn a high school diploma while producing well-rounded citizens in the process.
"Just the fact that these young people say that if it weren't for Nuestra Escuela they would be dead or in jail, I believe is an important contribution to their lives, to their families and to the country," expressed Ana Yris Guzmán Torres, president y cofounder of Nuestra Escuela.
There are currently 250 students enrolled in the Caguas and Loiza centers, most between the ages of 13 and 21, and they are the ones that guide the curriculum by selecting individual projects. However, like many projects planned for the second half of 2017, Hurricane Maria changed everything.
The lack of electricity combined with flooding in the Caguas center caused mold to accumulate in the walls and destroyed all their books and computers. Nuestra Escuela also lost their four gardens, which were used for growing food and as laboratories. One in particular had installed solar panels and a sustainable water irrigation system.
Despite these setbacks, both centers reopened in October. The students decided to put aside their personal projects and work on helping their communities. During the first months after Maria, food was the priority. With the support of the FORWARD Puerto Rico Fund, they established community cafeterias to provide hot meals for the students, their families, and other members of the community, including many elderly people. These services are still available to those who continue to require them.
In 2018, the Nuestra Escuela students took on new community projects. These include a census of the needs of their communities and the creation of a natural mosquito repellent, in response to the mosquito outbreak that followed the storm. They are also rebuilding the gardens, as well as working on an additional garden run by the organization Urbe a Pie (Walking City) in Caguas.
"After the hurricane, the country changed, and priorities also changed, but one of the things we want to maintain in the organization is the openness to have this project led by the voices of our students, since they are the ones who truly know what they need," said Guzmán Torres.