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FORUM SPEAKERS: SCHOOL SYSTEM NEEDS A REHAUL

May 12, 2002 – The guilty party is the Virgin Islands education system. Not the commissioner, not the schools, not the present administration, not even the governor, at whom many are pointing fingers. That was the consensus of most who engaged in dialogue Saturday at a forum presented by the Virgin Islanders for Democratic Action Club.
Accountability was the key word at Saturday's public forum on education, which ran an hour past the scheduled 4 p.m. close with an audience so involved that it was reluctant to stop.
The recent loss of accreditation by three public high schools was not a subject of debate, but rather was described as a catalyst for bringing about change in an archaic educational system which defeats its own best purposes, bound by rules that simply no longer apply.
The Education Department has been likened to everything from a non-benevolent guardian to a behemoth to an "engine whose cogs continue to slip." Its failings are not secret.
The department is an unwieldy entity which cannot operate efficiently — that's the conclusion reached in a study undertaken by the University of the Virgin Islands at the direction of the Legislature. "It operates under a fundamentally flawed administrative structure," the just-completed report on the study of the department's administrative efficiency states.
Under the banner "Out of the Present Crisis a Rebirth in Public Education Is Possible," the forum brought together many of the territory' key stakeholders in educational reform. Not among them were acting Education Commissioner Noreen Michael and St. Thomas-St. John Schools Superintendent Rosalia Payne, who opted to be in Tortola for BVI Friendship Day festivities.
"If talented and motivated people cannot make a system work, then it is the system that is broken," UVI science and math faculty member Richard Hall said. "For example, for the past 10 years the DOE has been pressured by the federal government and the community to instigate site-based management of our schools. Now, after 10 years, representatives of the DOE say that we cannot have site-based schools until the territorial statutes are changed. Did it take 10 years to figure that out? Or did it take 10 years for that information to get out?"
Hall continued, "Either way … the existing management model has failed. For the past 30 years we have … watched our children graduate with extreme educational deficiencies. We place confidence in individuals, and that is our doom."
In support of site-based management
Decentralization and site-based schools are part of the solution, various speakers said. Carver Farrow, president of the Education Administrators Association and principal at Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School, said, "Nothing I see leads me to have faith in the future of the system. These are the same stories I heard 20 years ago. Our math education is from the '70s curriculum."
Farrow said the schools should be semi-autonomous from the central agency. "If I order something from Property and Procurement in August of 2001, with luck it will be here by August 2002," he said, adding emphatically, "I love site-based management. The responsibility would be mine and I would take it."
Terrence T. Joseph, St. Croix district schools superintendent, agreed. "Simply give me $50 million and let me spend it. If I spend it on a world cruise, give me an orange suit. The Property and Procurement procedures were created for 12,000 students, and now we have 60,000."
Farrow is an advocate of staff development, but not at the expense of instructional time, a notion applauded by all. "After school and in the summers we need to train our teachers. We need to ask them how much money it would take to give up that second job."
At BCB team meetings at the school, 70 percent of the parents show up, Farrow said. In contrast, a handful of parents turn out for Parent Teacher Student Association meetings, according to Margarita Benjamin, St. Thomas-St. John PTSA president, said. She said the association is changing — "It is no longer a fund-raising association; we need to get parents into the schools."
Benjamin said the perception that the teachers are far better educated is a barrier to some parents. "They are intimidated by their lack of education," she said.
Farrow said his team management system works in the Bovoni community to help bring parents into the school. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, President Bush's education reform package that has his Reading First initiative as its centerpiece, mandates that all teachers be certified by 2004. "The federal role in education is going to have a major impact on the V.I. — the testing and certification of teachers was on the minds of the educators," Berry noted.
UVI social sciences faculty member Malik Sekou, who has a seat on the Board of Education, said, "Every day the DOE performs a miracle — trying to educate our children in this system." But, he said, "Teachers don't have the necessary thirst for information now."
Teachers rewarded with move to management
Sekou said the certification issue "cannot become another crisis. The teachers need to be nudged. It's no wonder students don't have the skills — how about the teachers? It's always pitched warfare between the unions, the board and the Department of Education. We had some great classroom teachers, and now they are in management — and doing poorly."
He said UVI is the "high school of last resort for students," a thought echoed by other faculty members. Most incoming freshmen who are graduates of V.I. public high schools must take remedial English and math courses.
Sekou took a moment to defend his previous students here and in the states. "Let's don't paint over everything with too big a brush," he said. "Look at our CAHS class of '81," he said, pointing to Winthrop Maduro, AT&T of the Virgin Islands marketing executive.
Maduro said there is a need for technical education. He said a trailerful of free donated textbooks were left unused for a year. "We spend a year trying to give you something, which could be done in two days. That's incredible," he said.
"With this budget, we should go to a merit system," Maduro continued. "We should teach later in the day, teach until July. This is about change, and people don't like change."
Laverne Ragster, UVI provost and president elect, said, "There should be no finger pointing at people; it's the system." Emphasizing the UVI study findings, she said, "If you put a new cap on an old system, it not going to get better," she said. Yet, changing the system "is doable in not-too-long a period of time."
She said the massive Education bureaucratic system was responsible for the loss of accreditation. "It was known, but they couldn't get their hands on it fast enough," she said.
The UVI report recommends a major restructuring of the territory's education system. It calls for transforming Education from a political branch of government to an independent entity with two independent school districts governed by a locally elected or appointed board. The Education Department would remain part of the executive branch, but the districts would not report to the department. It would be become a policymaking body charged with creating the conditions for quality education in the territory and for receiving and dispersing federal funds.
The "poor" educational results in the territory are "not related to a wasteful administrative structure, but rather to a fundamentally flawed administrative structure," the report says. "In its simplest form, DOE has incredibly talented and dedicated professionals toiling in a system which cannot completely benefit from their efforts." It suffers und
er a "hierarchy of authority," the report states. "Its centralization contributes to the problem."
Hall echoed that sentiment. "Management of our schools is currently a struggle between the DOE, which answers only to the governor, and the Board of Education, whose authority has often been ignored by the governor and the DOE," he said.
Children fall through ever-widening cracks
Wanda Mills, daughter of educator Fiona Mills, described her distress. "The system has degenerated over the years," she said. "I have just moved back here after eight years, and I am trembling at the idea of putting my son in public school. People here tend to take education for granted. My son should have the best education available to anyone, anywhere. Not a substandard system."
Economist Richard Moore didn't mince words, citing "the utter failure of our public school system to sustain accreditation and generate academic performance at a level no greater than at the bottom of all U.S. jurisdictions." Moore said, "It is no one's fault, because it is everyone's fault."
With loss of accreditation, Moore said, "children will be suffering quantifiable lost future opportunity because of this system failure. No matter how you slice it, lost accreditation is not an opportunity. It is a very public, embarrassing branding of a community that must rebuild itself from scratch to remain viable."
Many of the panelists mentioned children having "fallen through the cracks." "Those 'cracks' are the size of the Grand Canyon," Moore said. "Retrieving accreditation three years from now will do little to address the bottom 90 percent of the iceberg called education failure."
He noted, "Even before we lost accreditation, 80 percent of all Virgin Islanders failed military service exams the first time — the singular highest rate of failure under the U.S. flag."
Average SAT scores of V.I. public school students, both Verbal and Math testing, have been at the very bottom of all U.S. jurisdictions, Moore said. And the average "was lower in the latest reported year. No other jurisdiction has sustained such a low average."
Moore cited research by the Community Foundation of the V.I., which he said has brought the poverty issue to a new level of community recognition with its "Kids Count 2001" report. "The knife to cut the vicious cycle of poverty" is education, he said, and the key to breaking that cycle is growth of the business sector, "generating more tax revenue and creating jobs" for what will need to be a "sufficiently trained workforce." (For the text of Moore's presentation, see "Challenge of Education is to educate".)
Students, Education Committee chair are no-shows
None of the four invited high school Class of 2002 presidents attended the forum, to Berry's dismay. The CAHS president "called me this morning, brokenhearted," she said, saying she had a cold and had lost her voice but would submit a paper. The two from Central High and Educational Complex had airline ticket problems. And while the Ivanna Eudora Kean student had said she would attend, "she is a Seventh-day Adventist," Berry said, "so perhaps that prevented her from coming."
The Senate Education Committee chair, Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste, was expected in the afternoon but did not appear.
About 40 persons — mainly retired and present educators, community activists and parents — made up the engaged and enthusiastic audience, which peppered the panelists with questions. Community activist and former teacher Carol Lotz, who presented a paper on correcting the accreditation problems, said later, to loud applause, "We're all being punished. All of this is the result of educational politics. Where is the pie chart? Show us where we are going!"
Clarence Todman, whose wife is a St. Thomas teacher, said, "We get a $125 million education budget, and 90 percent goes to personnel. What's left for anything else? My wife's textbooks are 15 years old."
Dee Brown, executive director of the Community Foundation of the V.I., which gives grants for community projects, expressed her board's frustration. "How can we help now?" she asked.
Roy McFarlane, special assistant to the governor for information and technology, shared positive news in the area of teacher training. On May 4, his office in cooperation with the St. Thomas-St. John chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, graduated 23 teachers from the Riverdeep Teachers Universe Professional Development program; the teachers graduated from a course in developing their teaching skills through a Microsoft technology program.
"These dedicated teachers did this on their own time," McFarlane said.
At the graduation ceremonies, McFarlane told acting commissioner Michael, "You were quoted in the electronic media that 'We re starting to rebuild our education system.' Today, we would like to present you with 23 newly trained teachers as a small step in the rebuilding process."
The course will be taught on St. Croix starting Tuesday, McFarlane said, with 40 teachers signed up.
Berry pledged to ask her Senate colleagues to appropriate funds to meet some specific immediate Education needs — textbooks, supplies and testing materials — which had been brought up several times during the day. All department budgets are line-item allocations. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull sought lump-sum budgets for Fiscal Year 2002 and has submitted legislation to switch to lump-sum budgets several times, but the Finance Committee chair, Sen. Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, won't budge on the issue.
Berry said she doesn't support pending educational reform legislation that would give a restructured Board of Education governance for the school system. She said she hopes the UVI report and the papers submitted Saturday will inspire new educational reform legislation.
Twelve of Berry's colleagues supported the bill she introduced last year calling for the UVI study. On Saturday she said she was hopeful about similar support for implementing the report's recommendations.
Other panelists were Patricia Nathan, St. Thomas-St. John director of curriculum, assessment and technology; Anna Lewis, state director of vocational, technical and adult education; the Rev. Eddie Williams, chair of the Board for Vocational Education; and Ira Hobson (not the commissioner), district PTSA second vice president. Retired educator Dolores Thomas was the moderator.
The all-day forum, held at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel, was one in an ongoing series sponsored by the Virgin Islanders for Democratic Action Club, which Berry chairs. The club presented a forum on the territory's economic future last November and another on problems within the local insurance industry in January.
Anyone still wishing to submit a paper recommending action for educational reform should deliver it to Berry's office by Saturday, May 18. Materials may be sent via e-mail to Sen. Lorraine L. Berry.

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