Return to Headlines

Puerto Rico shows 'indomitable spirit' (Photo gallery and video)




CMSD Chief Operating Officer Patrick Zohn was in the rural hills of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, assessing the condition of hurricane-damaged schools, when he spied a reminder of home.

A teacher took him inside his tiny classroom, eager to show how he had scrubbed and readied it for reuse. Zohn noticed a poster of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James – in his former Miami Heat uniform.

“I told him I am going to send him one of LeBron in his Cavs’ jersey, along with one of (Cleveland Indians shortstop and Puerto Rico native) Francisco Lindor,” Zohn said. “He said, “Ahhh, Lindor.”

The teacher was one of three who corralled Zohn and asked him see their cleanup jobs. The  exchanges were more proof of the “indomitable spirit” the COO said he has regularly observed during a mission arranged and sponsored by the Council of the Great City Schools.

The people of Puerto Rico are eager to reopen schools and achieve some semblance of normalcy that was obliterated when Hurricane Maria smashed its way across the island on Sept. 20. Zohn said they are prepared to go on without electricity, but in many cases are held up by the loss of drinking water.

“It’s amazing the minimal conditions they are willing to accept to teach,” he said. “The kids want to go to school. Their parents want them to go to school.”

Zohn, who arrived in Puerto Rico on Sunday, is with seven other officials enlisted by the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy, research and professional development organization that represents 70 of the United States’ large urban districts. The council is paying for the weeklong mission.

The crew puts in long days -- Wednesday they were on the road from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. -- and gets at least a small feel for the hardships island residents have experienced.

(More than 120 Puerto Rican students enroll in CMSD schools after families flee storm wreckage.)  

Zohn was in a restaurant earlier this week when heavy rain flooded the interior with 2 inches of water. Later, he arrived back at his second-floor hotel room to find the carpet soaked with rainwater that had pooled on a balcony and forced its way in.

The island is home to more than 1,100 schools, hundreds of which remained shut down at the start of the week. Puerto Rico Secretary of Education Julia Keleher asked the council team to inspect representative samples of buildings in various regions to determine the structural soundness.

Zohn’s group included officials from Miami-Dade County, Fla., and Houston, both fresh off their own hurricane experiences, and an Albuquerque, N.M., official who helped in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

On Wednesday, they checked out 16 buildings, including two no longer fit for use. The people who greeted him along the way were eager for good news about their schools.

“A simple thing like this can mean so much. It’s humbling to, in a small way, give them hope,” Zohn said. “It’s been hectic. It’s been exhausting. But I’ve never felt better in this work.”

Have a story idea for the CMSD News Bureau? Email it to