May 8, 2007 — While the local education system is still suffering from an overall shortage of funds, teachers and other resources, officials from the St. Thomas-St. John school district said they are making strides in many areas, including establishing new programs to target disabled students and those with limited English proficiency.
During Tuesday's Education, Youth and Culture Committee meeting, many representatives said they are beginning to push a new policy called inclusion, which allows students with disabilities to learn alongside their peers, instead of being segregated and taught outside "mainstream" classrooms.
According to St. Thomas-St. John District Insular Superintendent Lisa Hassell-Forde, the local Department of Education is currently partnering with the UVI Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, headed by professor Yegin Habtes, to implement inclusion into the public school system.
Habtes explained that programs developed at the center preach inclusion at all grade levels, starting with early childhood education, which looks at the development of children from birth to age 8.
"The new philosophy is that if teachers are trained well, they can teach children with disabilities and those without disabilities in the same classroom," he said. "Inclusion is built on the belief that people/adults work in inclusive communities, work with people of different races, religions, aspirations and abilities. In the same vein, children of all ages should learn and grow in environments that resemble the environments they will eventually work in."
Habtes added that teachers working with the center are consequently trained to keep all students together in the classroom, while bringing support services to those who need them. "A child with a disability, for example, could be taken out of the regular education classroom and visit with a speech therapist or physical therapist whenever the need arises," he said. "However, when the child is finished with the therapy, they must go back into the regular classroom."
While inclusion efforts are still ongoing, Education officials said they are also preparing to make local campuses handicapped accessible. During a similar committee meeting held on Monday, several school principals and other representatives said they are expecting a small influx of students with disabilities, but are not prepared to accommodate them on campus.
According to Joseph Sibilly, St. Thomas-St. John District deputy superintendent of schools, the department has plans for inclines, ramps and handicapped-accessible bathrooms, but has not secured the funds needed to put these items in place.
"We have also identified the paths that these students will be traversing on a daily basis," he explained. "The cost of everything has been put into our capital maintenance budget for fiscal year 2008, so we're still waiting to see where the money is going to come from. But we have other plans that we can consider as well if the money is not approved."
In the meantime, the department's Division of Special Educational Services, headed by Felicita Saldana Richards, is continuing to address various staffing and resource needs, including the hiring of additional school psychologists to deal with the backlog of student testing evaluations.
However, Richards said there is still a need for a network administrator and budget coordinator, along with a new office for the division to house its operations.
In addition to assisting students with disabilities, Hassell-Forde said plans are also in the works to develop a "welcome center" to acclimate English Language Learners (students with limited proficiency in English) into the public school system.
According to acting Education Commissioner Lauren Larsen, the St. Thomas-St. John District currently has 763 ESL (English as a Second Language) students — 321 of whom are receiving services from the department. Larsen said that with a limited staff of ESL teachers, challenges arise in getting the students to meet the same academic standards as their peers.
Larsen also noted that 8.5 percent of the Hispanic student population is dropping out of school. "This poses a very serious concern and challenge," he said. "It has also been observed that a number of students coming from the Dominican Republic are overage and under-schooled — the main reason being that education is not mandatory in their originating country, so they arrive with very limited skills and placing them in grades to match their social development creates a major problem."
The establishment of a "welcome center" would help to combat these issues, Larsen said, by allowing the new students to remain in a facility "with appropriate staffing" until they are ready to move into the regular classroom setting.
The department will also be partnering with a university in Puerto Rico to establish a local master's degree program for V.I. teachers specializing in ESL studies.
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone and Terrence "Positive" Nelson.
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