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Cancryn Students, Parents and Faculty Stage Walkout

Jan. 18, 2005 –– More than two months after a fire destroyed four classrooms, restroom facilities and a storage room at Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, nothing has been done to repair the damage, or to replace the books and other items lost in the blaze.
Tuesday morning students, teachers, faculty and some parents decided to do something about it; they staged a two-hour walkout. They all said what they want is an explanation of why the school's problems aren't being addressed, and a timetable for improvements. And a couple of teachers strongly hinted the demonstrations will continue until they get some attention.
American Federation of Teachers union representatives are taking action. Art teacher, Leba Ola-Niyi and Rochelle Jackson-Todman, a physical education teacher, were writing to public officials Tuesday afternoon calling for the school's situation be addressed. They wrote acting Gov. Vargrave Richards, William Frett, St, Thomas/St. John school superintendent, and Sen. Liston Davis, Education Committee chairman, asking for a Friday after-school meeting with faculty, staff and parents. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull is off-island attending the Presidential Inauguration.
School principal Yvonne Pilgrim said nothing has happened since the November fire. The books have not been replaced, construction on new classrooms has not begun, Pilgrim said. "It's not an environment in which to educate children," she said. "Unless we educate the children with our best efforts, we will continue to see the deterioration in the community."
Heap of Problems Have Plagued Cancryn
Pilgrim has been through a lot in her slightly-more-than-four-year tenure as principal. Aside from the school's continuing funding problems, lack of a gym, lack of playing field, lack of cafeteria, in 2001 and again in 2003, the school suffered through a spate of bomb scares which emptied the school and disrupted classes.
On Tuesday, Pilgrim tried to remain positive. "We have no facilities to hold an assembly, and it creates low morale in the children." However, she said with a smile, "I remain hopeful."
The school has also suffered a series of break-ins and thefts of equipment. One occurred a week before last November's fire. At the time Keith Richards, Board of Education member and the governor's capital projects director, said school officials had been concerned about security but that he thought the new video cameras, scheduled to be installed at the "beginning of next year," would alleviate the problem.
Pilgrim said Tuesday those cameras have not been installed.
Richards also said last November that he believed the Education Department had the situation under control. On Nov. 5, after the fire which kept students out of classes for a week, Turnbull issued a proclamation declaring public exigency to authorize the purchase of supplies and to make contractual agreements for the cleanup and reconstruction of classrooms. This enables the department to sidestep the normally required competitive bidding process.
School's Problems are Chronic and Not Just Structural
But the school's problems are not limited to infrastructure. Former senator and Cancryn history teacher Donald "Ducks" Cole, said Tuesday, "A major concern is the students in the school population who have gone through the criminal justice system and return to this school. It's a revolving door. It's a terrible influence on the younger kids."
Assistant Principal Ahmed Popo concurred. "We have one school monitor for more than 900 kids," he said Tuesday, while directing students in the long corridor back to class. "The older students are creating problems. It's a challenge to educate the children and get them out of here. We get two new students almost every day."
The problems at Cancryn have continued for years; they are chronic. Yet, action remains to be taken. Funds have been appropriated by the Senate. Former Sen. Carlton Dowe, an avid promoter of capital projects, schools in particular, in the last two Legislatures, was at the protest Tuesday morning.
"It's very frustrating," Dowe said. "My son, J'Koi Dowe is a seventh-grader here." And, he said, "We have the money. It has been available for several years; the territory has $12 million in capital projects funds for education. The monies are in place from the 24th Legislature."
In January 2004, Kenneth Mapp, Public Finance Authority executive director, told Radio One that several million dollars would go to the school system, including $3 million specified for Cancryn.
The school's physical condition has continued to worsen as, time after time, money is appropriated in the Senate which never gets to the school. Cancryn has been in need of repair since Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. It needs a cafeteria, a gymnasium and an auditorium. The school, which has more than 900 students, has no place to hold an assembly for more than 400 students. With no gym, Cancryn physical education activities are held out of doors in a dirt cricket field west of the school where students are exposed to intense sun and experience heat exhaustion, dehydration and aggravations to allergies and asthma. If the weather is inclement, they get no physical education activities at all.( See "Cancryn Has A New Promise Of Repair Funds").
Yet it is a year later, and those funds and those improvements have yet to materialize. Dowe said Tuesday, "We're not aggressive enough in getting those funds. It's disgusting. I know the PFA hired an engineering firm for major capital projects."
Mapp was off-island Tuesday, and not available for comment.
Not only are books and supplies short, the teachers say there are other critical problems. Gloria Salas-Lindquist, 17-year home economics teacher, said, "The bathrooms are in deplorable condition, usually with no running water. I have to keep toilet paper in my classroom for the kids. Classrooms leak, my room leaks –– my husband had to come and help caulk the ceiling. If it's rained, I have start the day by mopping out first," she said.
Salas-Lindquist pointed out the bridge over the highway on the school corner has yet to be repaired after a truck damaged it last year. "A child was hit there a month or so ago. There are two cops in the morning sometimes, but not all the time. The fence in front by the bus stop is broken, so anyone can come in. There's no gym, and the cricketers have taken over our playing field," Salas-Lindquist said. "I have to take my cross-country running kids down to the waterfront."
Cole said it is doubly frustrating to be teaching in a school for which he'd worked so hard to get funds. During his term in the 24th Legislature, Cole along with Dowe, had identified funding for the school. "I was in the system, and I appropriated money and the job is still not done," Cole said.
School in "Renovate or Reconstruct" Limbo
"The key is we need a plan from the powers that be," Cole said. "What are they going to do? It's been said that Cancryn would be relocated. Are they going to move us?"
That has been the crux of the matter for years, Sen. Liston Davis said Tuesday. Davis, Senate Education chairman is a long-time educator and former Education commissioner.
Davis, who had been at the walkout in the morning, said he shares the teachers' concerns. "I'm familiar with the problems and the issue at hand," he said. "At this juncture, I can't support new construction of an auditorium, gym or cafeteria until a decision is made on the status of the school," Davis said. "They have to make a decision before I would support spending $3 million to $5 million on renovation of the school."
Davis said he thinks
that decision has to be made by the governor and the Education commissioner. "There are three sites that have been proposed," he said. "There is one by the airport on land owned by the V.I. Port Authority."
Davis said he would support immediate repair of the burned-out classrooms and leaking roofs. He also said because the school is on filled land it is particularly high maintenance.
"It is ironic that I'm planning my first Education Committee meeting late in February to deal with the school maintenance problems, and Cancryn is on the agenda, specifically," Davis said. "And here they are today staging a job action about it." He said he planned to start out his education hearings with the most basic issues – infrastructure and maintenance.
Davis said he had spoken "at length" with Frett Tuesday afternoon. "It is my impression that the construction project for the burned classrooms is not too far off," he said, but he didn't want to comment further, pending remarks from Frett.
Frett did not return calls from the Source Tuesday.
Calls to Richards and Education Commissioner Noreen Michael were also not returned.

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