May 19, 2006 – The vocational education program in the territory is "dismal," senators said after receiving testimony from Education officials during an Education, Youth and Culture Committee meeting Friday.
Sen. Liston A. Davis added that the program has been "put on the back burner" for years, and Education officials are not doing anything to improve it.
Davis' statements were echoed by Tyrone Molyneux, president of the St. Croix Federation of Teachers, who said "vocational education in the V.I. is at an all-time low," because Education officials and school administrators have systematically "dismantled" vocational programs in "every" junior high school in the territory. Prior to the "dismantling," he said, students were offered a range of programs that trained them in agriculture, metal work, drafting, and auto body repair, among others.
Molyneux said vocational facilities are in disrepair and that "millions of dollars worth of equipment" purchased for the program is going unused.
"These programs introduced students to a variety of courses, providing them with an opportunity to enter a high school or vocational school and choose a career," he said, adding that individuals who have acquired a particular skill would be able to find a job "anywhere in the world."
A similar picture of the program was painted by Lena A. Schulterbrandt, chairwoman of the V.I. Board of Vocational Education, who said, "Career and technical education has not had any major improvement since April 7, 2005, when I last testified before this committee."
She said enrollment in programs offered at the Career and Technical Education Center on St. Croix has decreased from 1,000 in 2002 to 700 in 2006. "This is largely due to the new graduation requirements," she explained. "Students are leaving the programs in order to graduate with their class."
While acknowledging that vocational facilities are in disrepair, Education Commissioner Noreen Michael told senators that the department was trying to improve by undertaking new initiatives such as the development of a new marine program for students at the Ivanna Eudora Kean High School on St. Thomas.
She also explained that on St. Croix, ninth-graders interested in learning an industrial craft could apply to a new four-year training and certification program at the St. Croix Career and Technical Education Center.
Upon completing the program, a certain percentage of the students enrolled will be hired for full-time positions – complete with salary and benefits – by Hovensa, which is seeking to replace retiring employees.
Senators weren't convinced. Sen. Louis P. Hill said, "Listening to Commissioner, you'd think everything was fine. But I think we all know that the vocational education program is at its lowest point."
Hill said that he and Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone requested that Education develop a plan outlining improvements needed for the program. "Nothing has been turned into us yet – and I'm wondering why," he said.
As Hill spoke, a five-year plan created by Education was circulated to members of the committee.
While senators did not have time to review the document, they did notice that the plan was drafted for 2000-2005 and did not seem to mention improvements needed for 2006.
Michael's testimony, however, outlined various pressing needs, including:
–more funding, since vocational education is one "of the most expensive and critical" components of the public school system.
–an assessment to determine whether the program is keeping up with changes in today's society.
–a way to alleviate the "tension" for students who are struggling to balance graduation requirements for both their vocational and regular academic courses.
–recruiting and retaining teachers for the program.
–increasing the salaries of personnel, like tradesmen, who are being paid the same as public school teachers.
Wrapping up her testimony, Michael said, "There is a perception in the community" that vocational education programs are "just for individuals who can't cut it."
"We need to steer our students away from that way of thinking," she said. "We need to let them know that this program is an option, not just something you do when you can't do anything else. And we want people to come in and take advantage of what we have to offer."
Molyneux added that he "needs" the Legislature to launch an investigation to find "two truckloads" worth of books earmarked for the vocational program that went missing during the 2004-05 school year.
He said the books were being stored at the University of the Virgin Islands on St. Croix, and disappeared after they were transferred to the St. Croix Educational Complex. "These were specialized books – not books that you would find just lying around in your home," he said, explaining that he had filed a police report about the matter and asked the Inspector General to conduct his own investigation.
Present at Friday's meeting were Sens. Roosevelt C. David, Davis, Hill, and Malone. Sens. Juan Figueroa-Serville, Neville James and Ronald E. Russell were absent.
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