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Crumbling, Neglected Schools A Major Concern in Board of Education Report

Aug. 4, 2006 — A 39-page Board of Education report on the state of V.I. schools uncovers in detail the decrepit, wanting state of most of the territory's public schools.
The report, issued annually by the board, covered the 2005-2006 school year and included at least two visits – one last August at the end of the 2004-2005 school year and another during the 2005-2006 school year. The board visits are required by law.
In one case, however, during a visit to John H. Woodson Junior High School, both then superintendent of St. Croix schools, Terrence Joseph, and Woodson principal Vaughn Hewitt refused to go into the school, citing the recommendation of contractors who said they shouldn't visit the school. Woodson had been shut down early during the 2005-2006 school year due to severe mold infestation and structural problems.
Lack of maintenance, or a plan for maintenance, was at the top of the problems list for the board and everyone who was interviewed during the visits.
The report said, "Maintenance problems keep administrators occupied to the detriment of effective management of their school's educational programs."
The report cited bathroom stalls falling down or gone completely, leaking roofs, rampant mold and broken-down electrical and plumbing systems. In one case, board members found a tree growing out of the wall at the Dober Elementary School on St. Thomas.
Even at the schools that are performing well from an educational standpoint, lack of maintenance is a gnawing problem.
At Joseph Gomez Elementary School, where principal Frieda Farrow was still basking in her students' success on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the board's inspection team said maintenance issues remain a concern. "We are handling the education issues," Farrow said, "but with maintenance, we need help big time."
And at newly constructed or remodeled schools, principals and administrators fear the lack of a comprehensive maintenance plan from the Education Department will soon result in the deterioration of their schools.
At Yvonne M. Bowsky Elementary School — formerly Peace Corps School, which was completely rebuilt on St. Thomas after Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 — leaking downspouts could lead to moldy conditions, while lack of maintenance to the school's air conditioning systems is "obvious by the amount of dirt visible in the discharge and return vents." If the lack of comprehensive and preventive maintenance is not addressed, "this school will meet the same fate as most of the territory's other schools," the report said.
The trend continued at Lockhart Elementary School, also recently rebuilt, where staff was demoralized by "the school's inability to have even minor maintenance concerns addressed, while simultaneously trying to keep the most positive attitude about the instructional needs of its students."
In the older schools, the inspectors found lack of maintenance had taken a even more dramatic toll.
At Pearl B. Larsen School on St. Croix, Fire Services found 30 violations, which included lack of smoke detectors in key areas, use of extension cords on a permanent basis and lack of signage near high-voltage transformers.
At Positive Connection Educational School, which is housed on the former campus of Juanita Gardine School on St. Croix, the board found "no visible signs of maintenance."
Maintenance Not the Only Problem
While maintenance issues grabbed the spotlight in the BOE report, crime, absenteeism, and lack of qualified teachers, librarians, and classroom space also had their place.
In one of the more dramatic cases at St. Thomas' Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, only one of the 14 paraprofessionals at the school had an associate's degree. All the others "have at most a high school diploma." Some have attempted to take the Para Pro exam, which serves as a substitute for the two-year associate's degree. All who have attempted have failed the exam.
At Juanita Gardine, which the report says has the largest population of disabled students, one nurse serves all the needs for the entire population. "She is overwhelmed with this increased responsibility and simply cannot adequately address all the needs of the mainstream student population," the report stated. However, the board was impressed with the school administration's rapport with students.
Also at Gardine, the board noted that abandoned buildings on the school property are home to vermin and drug abusers. "One can credit faith for the lack of serious incidents on this campus," the report noted.
But in the case of nearby Positive Connection, students have been robbed and attacked by people occupying the abandoned buildings, the report says. The board was particularly troubled that the department allowed such conditions to exist on a campus for at-risk students.
Teacher absenteeism has always been a problem at the territory's schools. A massive report done in the mid-'90s by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Melvin Claxton said that on any given day 10 to 20 percent of the schools' teachers were not there. It seems little has changed: At. St. Croix's Central High School on the day the monitoring was done, 18 teachers were absent.
Other student needs are seriously lacking, especially in the area of English as a second language. At Alexander Henderson Elementary School, which is designed specifically to handle students who need ESL teachers, there are no bilingual teachers for kindergarten, first, second or third grades.
St. John's Unique Problems
With only two schools, St. John has its own set of problems, which include itinerant teachers who must commute between Julius E. Sprauve School in Cruz Bay and Guy H. Benjamin Elementary School on St. John's far eastern end – a half-hour drive from Cruz Bay.
The school, because of its location, has faced staffing problems. With a population of about 66 students, the school went without a sixth grade for four years and nearly lost its kindergarten class last year. Both of those classes have been restored but only because the school's fifth-grade teacher is teaching sixth grade and the first-grade teacher has taken on the kindergarten class. Meanwhile, the Sprauve and Benjamin schools share music, Spanish and physical education teachers, along with a nurse and librarian.
The report says currently there is no itinerant music teacher. He quit because he was forced to obtain his own transportation between the two schools.
Some schools and programs shine
The news was not all bad, however. New science laboratories at Central High "are a far cry" from the ones replaced and described in the BOE's 2004-2005 report. One drawback, however, is they are being used as classrooms, which are overcrowded and allow students to view one another's tests.
At St. Croix Educational Complex High School, the guidance counseling services were lauded in the report. "The well-equipped … services should be the model for the schools in the territory."
At Bertha C. Boschulte School, which was rebuilt in the late '90s at a cost of more than $28 million, principal Carver Farrow was quick to praise the school's music department. "Every student in our music program must know how to read music," he said, "and this provides the discipline they need to succeed in all other subjects."
The report goes on: "And the pride in his school does not end there; when Farrow and other administrators … gather, there is hardly anything at the school about which they do not boast."
Among the school's successes is the mastering of its block scheduling, which has caused nothing but problems at other schools, including Elena Christian on St. Croix, where students from the shut-down Woodson School have been forced to go.
In their report, BOE members said the Boschulte staff members "take serious interest in th
e students on other levels as well." A team program they developed to help ninth-grade students with the transition from middle to high school has reportedly met with great success.
The school has seemingly thwarted the vandalism that has plagued other schools by inviting the community to use the school and thereby keep a close eye on it.
At Gladys Abraham Elementary School, formerly Kirwan Terrace Elementary School, students performed well on the Iowa Tests in the area of reading. The report says the school's laboratory is well-equipped and classrooms had been spruced up by the teachers, creating an atmosphere "conducive to learning."
Principal Whitman Browne said, "Our greatest challenge continues to be the physical plant."
Board recommendations
The board had several detailed recommendations, including: :
— hire an assistant superintendent with experience in civil engineering, construction, and maintenance to be in charge of physical plant and facilities only;
— hire a firm to assess all schools and make recommendations on how to raise standards on everything — from athletic to academics — to an acceptable level;
— obtain bids, get the Legislature to appropriate funds and begin work immediately on consultants' recommendations;
— staff each school adequately with custodial workers and landscapers, including a nighttime crew;
— employ at least one security guard to monitor security cameras; and
— employ certified school safety personnel to address the safety concerns both for staff and students.
"The Department cannot continue to construct new schools without recognizing the need to fund a basic regular and comprehensive maintenance program," the report concludes.
Two schools were not included in the report: E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary School on St. Thomas and Edith Williams Alternative School on St. Croix. The report said they will be addressed first in the upcoming 2006-2007 schools survey.
The report, prepared for Gov. Charles W. Turnbull has also been sent to the Education Department and the Legislature.
To read the report in its entirety, click here.

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