St. Croix Country Day School Headmaster Bill Sinfield still remembers the surrealism of Jan. 18, 2012. Sitting in his office looking out at the campus, he recalls a student shouting outside, “Hovensa is closing, Hovensa is closing.”
In the digital age of instant text messaging and many students having cell phones, the information and misinformation about the looming shutdown of St. Croix’s largest private employer – an oil refinery employing 2,200 people directly or indirectly – travelled at a rapid pace, he says, and it still does.
As big as the impact would prove to be to Country Day and other schools on St. Croix, what’s most important, Sinfield says, is the mission of Country Day didn’t change that day. It didn’t change the next day either, nor when it had to let go of 21 staff members based on what would be a 25 percent drop in student enrollment as a result of the closing.
When the current school year started, enrollment from the previous school year had dropped from 420 students to 315.
“We’re in the business of the future,” Sinfield says. “Whatever happens, that mission never changes.”
Despite the challenges St. Croix schools have faced since that infamous day of the Hovensa announcement, schools have pressed on, rethought how they did things and continued their mission of preparing students for a highly competitive, 21st century, digital economy that has seen the United States reach some of its highest unemployment levels since the Great Depression.
While it’s proved to be a challenging task for the entire island – living without Hovensa – hope still abounds in the schools where the future workforce is tailored and groomed. But it can’t be ignored that when Hovensa closed, the employees that left took their spouses and children with them, and quite a few of those spouses and children were St. Croix’s school faculty members and students.
As Sinfield put it, “We lost a lot of family and friends.”
Shrinking Enrollment, Reduced Faculty
“For us (St. Croix) and the schools, the biggest impact, and I don’t know if I can squarely say this is Hovensa, but we have the lowest enrollment on St. Croix that we’ve ever had,” says Superintendent of St. Croix District Schools Gary Molloy.
As a matter of fact, he said, between the start of the current school year and the year before it, enrollment is down in St. Croix’s 15 public schools by 6.2 percent. Since 2008-09, enrollment has decreased from 8,054 students to the current 7,276, nearly a 10 percent drop.
Molloy won’t put all of the current year decrease on Hovensa’s closing, but says it’s clearly a factor.
“I think it’s tied to the economy, which includes Hovensa,” he says. “People just have had to make some tough decisions and not to mention the LEAC (energy fuel consumption surcharge) that’s happening. You’d be surprised at the amount of families that have to make some decisions as to whether they’re going to put on their light or do something else.”
Donna Frett-Gregory, the assistant commissioner of the V.I. Department of Education, says the closing has had no negative impact on federal funding dollars the department receives, but added because of the fiscal crisis, any retirements or resignations on St. Croix by faculty or staff would not be filled or funded.
Molloy can’t put an exact number on how many staff have left since the Hovensa announcement, but says it’s significant.
“It’s more than 10; it’s more than 15 people,” he says.
And Molloy doesn’t necessarily think the exodus of teachers, students and their families is over yet.
“There still might be some effect because what some families have had to do is the significant other has gone and they’re waiting for everything to settle down before the rest of the family goes,” he says.
Sarah Cole, who started the Stone House Preschool nine years ago, has always had a waiting list since the school’s Waldorf-affiliated, play-based model – the only in the Virgin Islands – embodies smaller classrooms. By Stone House’s third year of existence, the waiting list was 60 children deep.
Stone House’s first school in La Grande Princesse grew so fast that, five years ago, she opened a second center in Frederiksted. But Cole says she lost a lot of children because of the Hovensa closing. With an enrollment last year of 45 children, she’s down to 34 this year.
“We rely on a complete enrollment because I’m not going to compromise our program by cutting back staff. I don’t want to save money by compromising the quality of what we offer so we really rely on those added enrollments to complete our budget,” she says.
“We haven’t really been affected until this month,” Cole continued. “We always had the waiting list so when people left, I just filled the spot. Now with all those spots filled, well a lot of those people have even left now. So a whole year later, it’s getting a little stressful for us, but you try – with working with children – to just block it all out and be in the present.”
Cole lost one staff member to relocation because her husband was employed by Hovensa, and said she had to let go of two more last spring. Yet she still opened a kindergarten and third center this past fall and attributes her survival and continued success to her caregivers.
“The staff has been amazing. They’ve cut back their hours and have been very flexible with the shifts they’ve had to take,” she says. “They’ve been great and really understanding and have done what’s needed to be done to keep this school going.”
Sinfield says the same thing about Country Day’s staff.
“This school is here and not only buffeted the economic climate we’re going through, but has in fact been constantly growing and developing and looking to get better at what we do, and that speaks to our staff,” he says. “I have every confidence in our staff because our job is to come in here and act like professionals and make kids feel comfortable and secure.”
Sinfield says that after identifying every way money could be saved, letting go 21 people because of the Hovensa fallout was the most difficult aspect of the entire last year.
“I had to do it quickly too so it wasn’t a weight on people. It was a very difficult time for everybody,” Sinfield says. “We (the Board of Trustees) looked at it in terms of eliminating positions, not people, but it’s still people.”
Rethinking for the Future
“You get back to old values when you’re in these situations,” Sinfield says. “I think that in times such as these, that’s your opportunity to retool. It’s time to reflect and get better at what we do because these times aren’t going to last.”
For Country Day, that means conservative budgeting moving forward. It means bringing in more students as its biggest revenue source is tuition. It also entails looking creatively at ways to save on V.I. Water and Power Authority bills and to reduce energy consumption. Sinfield says the school pays, on average, between $18,000 and $20,000 per month in WAPA costs and would like to cut that by at least $2,000 per month.
“A penny saved is a penny earned,” he says. “If I can save a buck, it’s worth doing it.”
Finally, he says, rethinking for the future means asking alumni and the community for help when necessary and, most importantly, keeping existing programs intact while also adding more to the mix.
“We’ve got to get better at what we do,” Sinfield says. “This is our opportunity to rethink and reflect upon who we are and what we do and how we can do it better.”
“I believe very strongly that art, music, phys ed, steel pans, world languages – all of them are essential to a rich, full education of a child. None of those things are expendable. If what we’re trying to do in this 21st century, digital economy is create creative and critical thinkers, well to take those subjects out is antithetical and shortsighted. We just said we weren’t going to do that.”
Neither are the public schools, Molloy says. They’re still trying to recruit more than 40 fulltime teachers, whose positions are already funded, and are looking for ways to continue Hovensa’s Career and Technical Education Academy, which allowed high school students to gain skills and certifications to be an electrician or millwright or someone who dealt with instrumentation, Molloy says.
Upon completion of the program, Hovensa hired 20 of the students and sent them on to technical college. There were 82 students left in the program when Hovensa made its announcement, and Molloy’s staff has written requests for proposals trying to allow the remaining students to continue the program.
“We don’t have the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow with Hovensa and their jobs, but the issue we are exploring is what Diageo or WAPA or whoever has because there is still a need for those trade areas,” Molloy says.
For Cole and Stone House, she’s cut the air conditioning to save on WAPA bills and is advertising for the first time ever. Cole said she’s going as far as creating a website, using Facebook and writing a blog.
“I’m just excited getting the word out there more about us on a widespread scale about how important play is,” she says, adding that there are lots of things about Stone House that nobody knows and that’s what she’s trying to change.
“It’s like home. It’s a very caring environment, very nurturing,” Cole says. “We operate like a big family. We all sit at this one table. We know things about each other just like a family so that’s really cool.”
Cole says despite the stress and uncertainty many are still feeling across the island, she couldn’t be happier every time she walks into Stone House.
“It’s like a sanctuary. When I walk through the door, all my troubles go away,” she says, “Because we just have to be here for the kids.”
Cole says she is actively participating with the kids again now, like she did when the school first opened. She’s working on projects with them, doing activities, realizing her passions, she says, and adds that it sure beats the administrative stuff.
“I’m very good at taking care of children and it’s better for the schools that I’m here,” she says. “I’m much happier being with the children.”
Cole says she only wants to see St. Croix get back on its feet again.
“I love this island and love it here,” she says. “I just want to see it get it together.”
Sinfield says Country Day’s promise is the same as it’s ever been, with one large caveat, that caveat being experienced by all St. Croix schools as a result of a down economy.
“What we’re doing is preparing children for college and beyond, and beyond is not a tack on,” he says.
“What we’re really preparing our children for is life in the 21st century, to be successful, productive citizens. And we just have to do that with less money.”