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HomeNewsArchivesSchools Need Upgraded Curriculum, Physical Improvements, Educators Tell Senators

Schools Need Upgraded Curriculum, Physical Improvements, Educators Tell Senators

May 7, 2007 — Setting aside the much-discussed issue of summer maintenance and school repair, senators and representatives from public schools across the St. Thomas-St. John district delved deeper on Monday into some of the other problems plaguing the local education system.
Those problems include the need to tailor students' curriculum to meet the demands of today's changing society. Teachers also need to be brought up to snuff with some of the latest technological advancements, some school principals said, which would mean increased professional training and the purchase of more modern equipment — such as computers, scanners and other electronic equipment.
For the most part, however, many agreed that one of the territory's major academic challenges lies in preparing students to take standardized tests and achieving benchmarks set by the local Department of Education, the No Child Left Behind Act and other governmental mandates.
"We need to make sure we're teaching the students exactly what they're going to be tested on," said Dionne Wells, principal of Guy Benjamin Elementary School on St. John. "And, since the students are not used to taking tests, test practice also needs to be included in the schools."
After testing takes place, teachers and other administrators need to thoroughly scrutinize the results and implement programs that focus on the students' deficiencies, Wells added.
However, the structure of the territory's educational system, along with a lack of certain resources — such as manpower — can put a damper on some of these efforts, school representatives said. In particular, many stressed the need to review social promotion policies set up by the V.I. Board of Education, so that students receive consistent remedial help instead of being passed on to higher grade levels.
While many of the schools have set up transitional programs for students performing below their current grade level, a lack of space prevents the students from remaining in the program for more than two years, testifiers said.
Compounding the problem is the fact that many students entering at the kindergarten level are "not ready for school," said Felix Durand, principal of E. Benjamin Oliver Elementary School.
"On the national level, kindergartners coming into school have to be five years old by Dec. 31 — here, it's by the end of September," Durand explained. "So what we're noticing is that kindergartners presently in school are, in some cases, one or two years behind their grade level. Some have access to preschool, but of course some do not, and there is just too much that has to be instilled in the kindergartners coming in to get them ready for school."
Reading fluency and comprehension was a particular problem for most of the schools, according to testimony during Monday's Education, Youth and Culture Committee meeting. While Sen. Carlton Dowe suggested that some of these problems could be combated by increased parental involvement, many school representatives said that they are working to implement programs that deal with students' consistent academic sore spots.
Other problems, however, do not have an immediate solution. According to Cira Burke, acting director of Edith L. Williams Alternative Academy on St. Thomas, a large percentage of students participating in the school's programs exhibit various behavioral and substance abuse problems or learning disabilities.
"Behavior often plays a major role in not meeting the benchmarks set by the districts," Burke explained. "When a student displays inappropriate behavior, they are pulled out of the classrooms — but they have not been identified as having special needs because of the backlog within the department (of Education) in terms of testing."
While Burke suggested that the public school system work on establishing a comprehensive behavioral plan, she also suggested that students — particularly those with substance abuse problems — get access to health care insurance to receive treatment or counseling.
Adding to Burkes' remarks, many senators agreed that another comprehensive policy be put in place — one that addresses the root causes of some of the schools' problems and offers effective solutions.
"Right now we're getting very caught up in meeting No Child Left Behind mandates — of taking this test and that test — and we're losing sight of developing our students' education," said Sen. Basil Ottley Jr.
He called for a longer view of the issue.
"And this theme is extended throughout history, where our educational system does not reflect the reality of the experiences our children encounter on a daily basis, where we continue to have the wrong discussion with regards to fixing education," Ottley added. "If we don't get to the root of that, then we're going to continue to be in a cycle of decay and in crisis mode with a train that's already on a different track."
School Maintenance, Security and Staffing
School maintenance and repair needs are often at the forefront of discussion during many Senate meetings, and Monday was no exception, as administrators, principals and teachers lined up to air grievances that ranged from a shortage of maintenance personnel to leaky roofs and pipes.
In several instances, maintenance and repair lists were one or two pages long, describing issues that date as far back as 1995 — the results of damage caused by Hurricane Marilyn.
"In the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn, our cafeteria was destroyed and has not yet been rebuilt," said Yvonne Pilgrim, principal of Addelita Cancryn Junior High School. "An undersized temporary cafeteria is still being used to provide meals for over 700 students, and is also used as an auditorium."
Many testifiers, such as the representatives from Charlotte Amalie High School, emphasized the need for more security, including additional surveillance cameras and a fence that will wrap around the campus to safeguard against trespassers.
A shortage of qualified teachers and other employees — such as school monitors, grounds workers and record keepers — has also stirred up problems for many local schools, testifiers said, and is compounded by the fact that school principals do not have complete oversight in the educational system's hiring and firing processes.
"Principals must have more autonomy regarding staffing and finances," said Freida Farrow, principal of Joseph Gomez Elementary School.
Reinforcing Farrow's remarks, Durand explained that principals often conduct interviews based on a list of individuals submitted by the Education or Human Services departments. "Sometimes it works out," he said. "But sometimes the pool of applicants is so limited that you have to take what you get. Other times, you have the teachers forced on you — that has happened to me before."
The Committee of Education, Youth and Culture will resume on Tuesday with testimony from Department of Education officials, including the district superintendents and the territory's third-party administrator.
Present during Monday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Dowe, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Ottley.
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